Couple Caught in County Catch-22

Couple Caught in County Catch-22

Department of Public Works says they can't build a geodesic dome.

At the end of Colchester Road, through a rusty gate and a quarter mile up an old dirt road is the spot where Ed Dyer and Jean Phillipson want to spend the rest of their lives. Right now, the spot is covered with brush, littered with golden leaves and surrounded by pine trees left over from when the lot was a Christmas tree farm. A couple hundred yards away is the notorious "Bunnyman Tunnel," which is said to be haunted by the ghost of a mental patient who escaped a hospital in the 19th century and sought cover inside the tunnel, killing and eating rabbits.

But to Dyer and Phillipson, that spot is the future site of their ecological house, the place where they will raise a family, reforest the land, and live as good stewards of the environment.

"This is the dream home," said Phillipson. "We're unbelievably lucky to have found this place."

BUT THERE is a catch. The county's Department of Public Works and Environmental Services has a problem with their driveway, the dirt road that runs parallel to the creek from Colchester Road to the house site. Part of the driveway lies under a 100-year floodplain meaning that every century, a flood will trap them in their house. The house itself and most of the driveway would be above the floodplain but the segment of the driveway below the floodplain caused county public works staff to deny their building permit pursuant to the county's floodplain ordinance.

As far as zoning and taxation are concerned, the land is buildable land. It is zoned for one house per five acres and taxed accordingly even though the low-lying driveway dooms any building plans.

"The county requirements are that there should be a safe access to a dwelling for emergency vehicles," said Qayyum Khan, the chief stormwater engineer for the Department of Public Works.

Because Dyer and Phillipson had planned to gravel the driveway, they included it into their site plan and offered to hold the county harmless in case of an emergency. Phillipson also noted that the nearest fire station, in Clifton, has access to a boat and a helicopter.

BUT THE MOST galling for the couple is the fact that a small bridge carrying Colchester Road across Popes Head Creek is actually lower than the lowest point in their driveway. After the bridge, Colchester Road winds up a ridge and ends at a new cul de sac subdivision. When the bridge floods, the people who live in the subdivision have no way out. But Dyer and Phillipson are not affected because they live on the other side of the bridge. The water would have to rise several more feet for them to be stranded.

But the subdivision was approved by the county and their home was turned down. That, said Khan, is because the site plan submitted by the subdivision to the county was all on higher ground. County staff did not take the low bridge into account because the road is maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation and not Fairfax County.

"Those are things that are beyond our control," he said.

But this makes no sense to Phillipson. Because her driveway is under the jurisdiction of county engineers, she said, "they can ignore all reason."

"Our access is better than everything else that's built," she added.

In fact, she noted, VDOT parks its trucks in their driveway to work on the bridge when it floods.

DYER, 26, AND PHILLIPSON, 25, both grew up in Fairfax Station but they did not meet until college. They describe themselves as committed environmentalists. Phillipson works at the Nature Conservancy in Arlington and the couple drives a hybrid car.

A couple years ago they bought the 13 acre lot on the north bank of Popes Head Creek in Fairfax Station and set out to build a home for themselves and their future family. Dyer's parents live across Colchester Road and Phillipson's are five minutes away. And it's not just any old house these two environmentalists want to put up. They see themselves living under a geodesic dome, one of a handful in Fairfax County. Dyer called the dome "the least impact and most environmentally-friendly house you can build." It would have a diameter of 39 feet, a height of about 30 feet and provide for four bedrooms, 2,600 square feet of total space with skylights at its apex.

A company in Oregon sells the house in a kit which the homeowners, their friends and relatives put up themselves, a 21st century version of the old Sears homes.

"We've spent a lot of time thinking about what we were going to do," said Dyer. "We have this awesome piece of land, what are we going to do with it?"

They first thought of building a log cabin or a cottage on the site before settling on the geodesic dome.

WHEN IT BECAME CLEAR the county would not approve their site plan, the couple approached the Board of Supervisors and asked for an exception to the rule to be allowed to build on their lot. Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield), whose district includes the property, said the board would probably grant them the exception sometime next year.

"I'll do everything I can," she said. "I felt very badly for them to have to go through all that."

Dyer and Phillipson insist they will take good care of the land. Besides their house, they will preserve the open space on their property.

"Now since the Board's so supportive of us we're really very hopeful," said Dyer. "For a year and a half we thought we had a really expensive 13-acre picnic spot. It was really really frustrating for a long time."