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Council Tackles Community Redevelopment

Aug. 7, 2002

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Herndon Town Council member John De Noyer need only look out his living room bay window each morning to see the problem he thinks should be a priority of the council this coming term.

"It's a monstrosity," De Noyer said Thursday night at a Town Council retreat.

"It" is the house that is under construction across from De Noyer's home at 601 Austin Lane. "I know it will not match any of the existing homes on the street. We simply have to look at preserving the character of our neighborhood as a whole."

The owner of the property, Felipe Solis of Arlington, disagrees with De Noyer's characterization of his property and says that it will actually be an improvement to the community. The original home was 1,500 square feet, while the new property, when complete, will be around 3,700 square feet.

Redevelopment of single-family homes, or infill, in Herndon was the most talked about subject last Thursday at the Town Council Retreat led by Mayor Richard "Rick" Thoesen at the Public Works Complex on Sterling Road.

"We are here to discuss what we are going to do for the next two years," the mayor said during his opening remarks to the group. "Our neighborhoods are at risk and developers will take over and tell us where we are going if we don't pick our priorities and focus on the tasks at hand."

IN A THREE-HOUR discussion that took place instead of a traditional council meeting, community development dominated the discussion.

The reconstruction project across the street from De Noyer is an example of redevelopment many on the council find troubling. It is so disturbing to De Noyer that he said, his wife, Ann Csonka, considered moving out of Herndon because of it. De Noyer, who has been a council member since 1988, first moved to Herndon 19 years ago.

While all the council members expressed concern that the integrity of Herndon's neighborhoods are being threatened by redevelopment projects, the council did not agree on whether it was a pressing problem.

"We've got to walk a very fine line between property rights of the owner and the neighbors," said Husch, after the retreat. "I'm sure the council will do the right thing, but I just want to talk about it some more."

De Noyer and his wife feel the infill issue is the most pressing one facing the council though they both admit that it is too late for anything to be done about their own street. "It is killing Herndon, that is what is happening more and more all around town," she said.

"If I am improving the property with the house and landscaping and following the rules in the book then I don't see how I am killing her neighborhood," said Solis, a program manager with the FAA.

"I'm not so much concerned with size constraints as I am on style and character," said council member Connie Hutchinson. "And I certainly don't want to infringe on property owner's rights."

De Noyer repeatedly disagreed with fellow council member Denis Husch on the infill issue. "I'll be contrarian," Husch told the group. "Why shouldn't I be allowed to build the smallest or largest property I can build? I'm not sure if visual easements are a problem or a perceived problem. I should be able to follow the rules that I bought [my property] under."

DE NOYER DISMISSED those arguments that property owners have every right to build whatever size house they see fit. "Everybody has property rights," he said, "But that includes the right to live in a neighborhood free from massive construction projects that stick out like a sore thumb."

Council member Carol Bruce seemed to agree with De Noyer that infill is a real threat to the community. "I am also concerned about the size and scale," she said. "You can really ruin the neighborhood if things get out of hand."

"I don't want to live in a neighborhood where every house looks the same," Husch said. "We want variety, diversity and we won't get that if we restrict what we can redevelop."

In Herndon, according to Henry Bibber, director of community development, newly constructed homes can be much larger compared to existing homes in the neighborhood, but no homes can exceed 35 feet in height.

Bibber outlined several possible requirements to strengthen existing ordinances and the town's Comprehensive Plan, including forbidding redevelopment that increase the size of a home by more than 130 percent of its original size. Other possible solutions ranged from broad language that would require developers and builders to relate their redevelopment to what is currently in the neighborhood to more precise language prohibiting property owners from building homes with above ground basements.

The issue of building homes on mounds to satisfy an owner's need for a basement was the only issue that seemed to generate agreement within the council. Husch agreed that the above ground basement homes can cause technical problems regarding drainage, water runoff and the angle of some new driveways are so severe that building sidewalks can be nearly impossible. "That was the one notion that made sense," he said.

"If you put too many restrictions on lots, then you will scare re-investment away and what you get is neighborhoods that deteriorate," Husch, a long-time advocate for lowering real estate taxes, said. "We don't want to craft a solution that decreases property value, suppresses redevelopment or constitutes a taking."