Does a larger home belong in a neighborhood with older, smaller homes? How should the zoning code for residential neighborhoods grapple with this trend?
While the Vienna Town Council met last July 26 to vote on a simple proposal for a new house to be constructed on Windover Avenue, the evening quickly became a discussion on the trend toward newer and bigger homes, sometimes affectionately called "McMansions," in Northern Virginia.
"Vienna is only now catching up to the trend that has engulfed the area," said Vienna resident Paul Layer, a neighbor of the proposed house on Windover Avenue.
Although builder Lou Sagatov might not have meant to start the debate with his application, his proposed plan to build a house in the Windover Heights Historic District struck a chord with Vienna residents concerned about keeping their neighborhood intact.
Indeed, even the Town Council was split in its decision, voting 3-3 on the application's approval.
The issue of compatibility "is something we're going to continue to struggle with," said Councilwoman Edythe Kelleher, who voted to approve the application.
Councilwoman Maud Robinson cast a dissenting vote.
"I think something that is troubling here, there is no sense of openness," said Robinson of the proposed layout.
The application to approve the designs for a new house at 315 Windover Ave. N.W., touched on three issues: the appropriateness of larger homes in well-established neighborhoods, the zoning in place to allow such development, and the clarity of the zoning ordinance for the Windover Heights Historic District.
It was the third issue, whether the application complied with the Historic District ordinance, that started the debate. The Windover Heights Board of Review, which determines whether applications meet the requirements outlined by the ordinance, approved Sagatov's designs for a new home on Windover Avenue earlier this summer.
But one of the house's would-be neighbors, the Lillises, appealed the decision, arguing that the mass of the proposed house overwhelmed its narrow lot. In addition, they said that it didn't complement the two houses next to it, both one-story, single-family ramblers.
Lillis added that he felt the Board, in approving the application, didn't discuss three matters for consideration as dictated by the zoning ordinance, which were "the relation to similar features of buildings, accessory buildings, structures or fences or signs in the immediate surroundings; harmony or incongruity with the old and historic aspect of the surroundings; and the extent to which historic places and areas of historic interest in the District will be preserved or protected."
A FELLOW resident of the historic district, Chuck Anderson, supported the Lillises' argument. He said he thought the application's massing and form was incongruent with the existing, neighboring homes. Anderson pointed to the prominence of the garage in the front view of the house and the flat rooftop.
To better the design, Anderson suggested reconfiguring the house so that the garage is separated from the main house or is toward the rear, lowering the height of the roof line, and making the design more complementary to the neighborhood.
"'Appropriateness should encompass general design and context, as well as detailing and materials," said Anderson, referring to the ordinance.
Yet Sagatov used the same argument about context, pointing to the various sizes of houses throughout the historic district, particularly the 12,000-square-foot home across the street from 315 Windover. When Sagatov's firm, Sagatov Associates, bought the property, it learned that the lot was in the historic district and went around the neighborhood to get a feel of the different homes there.
"Throughout the course of the district, there are large houses, there are small houses. It's a mismatch," Sagatov said.
Sagatov countered that focusing on how his proposed home fits in with its two immediate neighbors was a narrow focus. He argued that he met the current criteria, and that height and size weren't included in those criteria.
"This appeal jeopardizes my rights as a property owner," Sagatov said.
SAGATOV EXPLAINED that the front garage was necessary, in keeping with the town's zoning restrictions on lot coverage. Moving the house farther back on the property was also impossible for the same reasons.
"Size in Vienna is driven by zoning, is driven by lot coverage," Sagatov said.
A driveway leading up to a garage would also impact the quality of life for the property adjoining the driveway, Sagatov added. That property is owned by Paul Layer, who said he wished not to be bordered by two driveways on either side of his property.
"The neighborhood is eclectic. The house across from me is mixed eclectic," said Layer, an architect who also serves on the town's Maple Avenue Vision Committee. "It's like taking rock ‘n’ roll and some other music and putting it together.
"The neighborhood is reflecting what's going on in the larger economy. Nothing more, nothing less," he continued.
After Anderson and Frank Lillis and Sagatov completed their arguments, Steve Bukont, chair of Board of Review and a builder himself, defended the Board's decision to approve Sagatov's application, explaining that Sagatgov had fulfilled all the criteria and had the legal right to build on the property.
"As I see it, this is sort of a balancing between owner's rights, the interests of the neighborhood, and what's been decided before," Bukont said.
IN DEALING with the trend of larger homes coming into Vienna, Bukont suggested incentives for people to be creative in their lot coverage, such as constructing front porches.
"I do think this is heading to a larger debate on where the zoning ordinance is," Bukont said.
The Town Council was divided in its vote. Council members
Kelleher, Mike Polychrones and Vienna mayor Jane Seeman voted to approve Sagatov's application, while Council members Robinson, Laurie Cole and George Lovelace voted against it.
Council member Sydney Verinder was absent.
"I think it's very critical that we have a full airing of what's considered by the Board," Lovelace said.
"The owner of the property has bent over backwards to comply with the zoning code, " Polychrones said.
Referring to questions of possible vagueness of the historic district ordinance, Seeman said, "If we need to appoint a committee to look at the guidelines, then that's what we should do."
Since the vote was split down the middle, the Council must decide on the appeal within 30 days of July 26, or else the decision by the Board of Review stands. The Council intends to address the issue again at its Aug. 16 meeting.