Balmoral Developer Is Denied Open Septic Field

Balmoral Developer Is Denied Open Septic Field

When residents of Clifton's tony Balmoral community plunked down $1 million or more for their homes, they expected to live next to other lots with homes on them — not a sewage-disposal field.

And when developer Balmoral Associates asked Fairfax County's permission to turn one of its residential lots there into a septic field, some neighbors there were naturally alarmed.

"My husband and I are in strong opposition," said Amy Waldrop, who lives right next to the lot in question. "We believe it would adversely affect our property values. Our home is valued at $950,000, and our property value will drop — as will others in the neighborhood."

"This application transforms that site into a sewage-treatment plant," she continued. "We as homeowners will be looking at 500 feet of above-ground, green, plastic containers visible from the main road."

Waldrop was speaking at a public hearing, last Tuesday, July 15, before the county Board of Zoning Appeals. And when the dust cleared after the contentious, two-hour affair, the BZA denied the developer's request.

The problem was that this area has no public sewer and is on environmentally sensitive land zoned residential conservation (RC) in the Occoquan Watershed. Although the developer was initially assured by his soil consultant that two of his lots — 40 and 167 — on Balmoral Greens Avenue would perk (thereby allowing installation of septic systems) so homes could be built on them, he later discovered this was not the case.

He then asked for permission to deviate from the county zoning-ordinance provisions requiring septic fields and waste-disposal systems to be on the same lot as the dwelling they serve. His plan was to use a separate lot — 53 — on Detwiller Drive for the sewage-disposal needs of the future residents of lots 40 and 167.

County staff flatly rejected the idea, for numerous reasons, and Mavis Stanfield, senior staff coordinator in the Department of Planning and Zoning, explained them during last week's hearing. She said it was the county's first application for this type of variance, and she noted that, even if Balmoral couldn't use lot 53 for a septic field alone, it could still build a house on it.

The developer proposed installing two Puraflow septic systems on lot 53, and their manufacturer estimated their life expectancy to be 15-20 years. "However, [environmental] concerns have been raised regarding the viability of these drainfields over time, because one 1.29-acre lot [would be] dedicated solely for wastewater treatment for two houses," said Stanfield.

"The stress [it] could place on the land is not known and could be problematic, given its location in the Occoquan Basin — a drainage area for [Northern Virginia's] drinking-water supply," she added. "The zoning-ordinance requirement that the drainfield be located on the same lot as the dwelling it serves was established to protect the public health, safety and welfare."

The staff report dated July 8 stated that granting the developer's wishes "could set an undesirable precedent" for similar variance requests in the Occoquan Basin and other environmentally sensitive areas of the county. Stanfield said it "could result in maintenance and contamination problems in the RC district."

Attorney Henry Brandenstein spoke on behalf of Balmoral Associates and submitted a letter from the community's homeowners association, supporting the application. He said that, in March 1996, Balmoral Associates acquired 884 acres there, donated 405 acres to the county and subdivided the remainder into 182 large lots. All were to be served by private septic systems.

Brandenstein said the developer didn't know then that two lots would later fail to perk. After the first one failed in summer 1998, the developer had 37 lots tested, and it was determined that, with work, 34 could be made buildable, but three still wouldn't perk.

"It cost the applicant $250,000 to make these lots compliant so they could be sold," said Brandenstein. And two of the three nonperking lots could be built on, he said, if the developer were allowed to use the third lot — 53 — as the septic field for both of them. He also said their distance from lot 53 would pose no problem.

"There are lots now in Balmoral where the drain lines run 1,800 feet [from septic tank to drain field] — far out of sight and mind of the owner of the principal dwelling," he said. "These [to lots 40 and 167] would run 800 linear feet and 400 linear feet. The conduit would run under the road [Detwiller Drive], which VDOT said is OK."

Brandenstein mentioned a letter from a prospective purchaser of one of the two lots, acknowledging and supporting the idea. Furthermore, he said, "[It's] a situation not of our own making, but [there's] a creative solution to preserve the value of two lots, even though we'll have to lose the one lot [53]."

BZA member Jim Hart asked, "Why isn't your client responsible for mistakes made by its own soil consultant?" Brandenstein said the developer didn't know about them until after the first septic failure. "The representative soil samples turned out to be not as representative as they needed to be," he said.

"Isn't that a risk your client assumed?" Replied the attorney: "To the extent that they relied on the soil samples, yes, it was a mistake." And he said "nothing extraordinary" was done at these lots that could have created problems.

However, Pamela Pruett with the county Health Department wrote in a June 26 memo to Stanfield that, in 1998, Health Department staff determined that "site disturbance resulting from clearing operations, heavy vehicular traffic, excessive grading and other construction activities" were responsible for the failures of lots 40 and 167 to perk.

At the BZA hearing, residents spoke on both sides of the issue. Juan Cardenas said most of the comments received from homeowners by the Balmoral Homeowners Association were in favor of the developer's septic proposal. Hal Hepner, who lives next to lot 167, read a letter of support from nearby homeowners who want to see a home built there.

"The lot has been an unsightly mess — filled with trash, weeds, rodents and mosquitoes — adversely affecting our property values," he said. "This will finally give us the finished neighborhood we were promised when we bought our homes."

William Van Vleet, who lives just south of lot 53, agreed, saying it would increase the neighborhood's aesthetics. But Steve Guttonplan was opposed; he said most of the Detwiller Drive homeowners living near these three lots, like himself, were worried.

With two different septic systems proposed for one lot, he asked, "When there's a problem with the system, how do property owners [of lots 40 and 167] know which one failed and who's responsible for fixing it?" Neighbor Matthew Hall said it could cause "boundary and homeowners' disputes."

And Amy Waldrop, living beside lot 53, showed BZA members photos of how the green, Puraflow, sewage-treatment canisters would look. "Would you like them located within 10 feet of the main drive into your neighborhood, or in your backyard?" she asked. "If you had a million dollars, would you buy a house here?"

Agreeing, Hall said, "I purchased a home in this upscale, high-level community in expectations of having a certain property integrity [which this would jeopardize]." In the end, the BZA ruled unanimously against the developer.

Referring to the soil consultants' faulty data and the developer's construction activity "which aggravated the problems on these lots," Hart said Balmoral Associates' troubles were "self-imposed," so it can't seek relief from the county.

"They took the risk that [they couldn't develop all their lots," he said. "It's not the Health Department's fault, or the neighbors.'" Approval, said Hart, would "open Pandora's box to all kinds of development in the RC [regarding] lots that don't perk" and wouldn't conform with "protection of the Occoquan."

Although it might be expensive, the BZA's Paul Hammack recommended the developer "further explore on-site sewage treatment on these lots."