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City Council Takes On Walls and Window Wells

Property Rights vs. Historic Preservation

The Alexandria City Council wrestled with the conflict between property rights and historic preservation at both the June public hearing and the last legislative session of the year.

"This is very frustrating for me,” said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson at the June 25 Council meeting. “I do not feel that I am informed enough to make the kinds of decisions that we are being asked to make in these Board of Architectural Review appeals. I, for one, need a work session with the BAR on just how they function and what our role is in these appeals.”

Woodson was not alone. “I think that point is well taken,” said Councilman David G. Speck. “I have learned more about window wells than I ever thought I would need to know. It is difficult to make these kinds of decisions when the people within the historic preservation community can’t even agree. The decisions are by no means black and white.”

The most recent controversy arose over three BAR appeals. The most significant of these is the house at 209 S. Lee Street. It is owned by Amy Bayer. The house is a three-story, freestanding brick townhouse dating from around 1815. Around 1884, it was restyled with Victorian decoration. The entire length of the house appears to have been built at the same time because there doesn’t seem to be a brick seam joint on the north side of the house that would indicate a later addition. According to the staff memo, “209 S. Lee Street is highly unusual as a free-standing historic house that can be easily viewed on the sides as well as the front. It retains its original grounds with generous gardens on both the north and south sides, making the house prominent and visible…”

BAYER IS proposing to build a two-story addition on the north side of the house, to be used as a family room where her children can play and invite friends. “There is just no place for the children to play with their toys,” Bayer said at the June 15, public hearing.

The BAR considered, in concept, an addition on the north side of the house, extending from the rear ell. At that time, the BAR differed the matter for further study, but made general comments that the design was generally appropriate with regard to mass and scale. However, the Board also indicated that it was concerned about the loss of open space in the north side yard and about the amount of demolition that would be required to construct an addition.

Oscar Fitzgerald represented the BAR at the June public hearing. “One of the big problems with this application is that there is really no difference between encapsulation and demolition,” he said. “Once you have encapsulated this wall, it is gone from public view. There would be significant destruction of historic fabric to build this addition. It is our responsibility to preserve the historic nature of Old Town. That’s what makes Old Town different from Centreville. This is a large home with a significant amount of open space. It is a treasure and it is our responsibility to protect it.”

Bayer offered to grant an historic easement on the encapsulated wall. “She has made the offer and it has been rejected,” said Duncan Blair, who represented Bayer on the appeal.

Fitzgerald explained. “It was rejected because to accept such an easement would be tantamount to approving this type of encapsulation,” he said.

THE ADDITION would turn the historic wall into an interior one instead of an exterior wall but the wall would be left intact. “I’m not sure I see what the problem is if she’s willing to say that she will not destroy the wall,” said Councilwoman Redella S. “Del” Pepper. “As times change, so do the needs of families. Women, for instance, need larger, more modern kitchens that were not available in these houses that were built in the 19th century. If we want people to live in the old and historic district, it seems to me that we are going to have to be reasonable in granting them the flexibility to build additions. We have allowed additions in many other cases in Old Town.”

One of the other issues was allowing a property owner to have window wells so that the basement of his home could have light and thus, be more useful. “There are window wells all along Lee Street,” Speck said. “There are bars and grates and all different styles. I have seen so many different examples of window treatments that I can’t possibly tell what is historically appropriate and what is not. The staff supported the window wells at this location and the BAR did not. It seems that we have to make the decision.”

One of the neighbors raised the issue of the appeal process, stating that appeals should not be granted unless there is “reversible error” on the part of the BAR. Speck explained the difference.

“This is the one exception to that rule,” he said. “We have the option to re-hear an issue and make a ruling that includes the political realities of the situation as well as what was looked at by the BAR.”

THE WINDOW WELLS were approved unanimously and Bayer was given permission to build her addition by a vote of three to two.

“It is an ongoing issue,” said Eileen Fogarty, the director of the city’s department of planning and zoning. “In some cities, appeals on issues of historic preservation go from a body like the BAR to court. That keeps the decision out of the political arena. We are also going to hire a division director to handle just issues of historic preservation. That will allow us to devote the time to these issues that they require. We can also look at a process, complete with clear guidelines, through which applications in the old and historic district are evaluated. This is not an easy issue, particularly when you have people living in an historic district. There are bound to be conflicts.”

Council will schedule a work session with the BAR in the Fall to discuss some of those conflicts.