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Battle Ends In Victory For All

A controversy that has embroiled the Board of Architectural Review, City Council, Old Town Civic Association, and the Alexandria Circuit Court over a period of 20 months, came to a quiet, almost unnoticed, resolution January 7, right where it began — at the BAR meeting.

At the center of the storm has been the proposed demolition and reconstruction by the owner of a freestanding brick townhouse at 209 S. Lee Street which dates back to 1815. BAR originally denied the proposal. City Council overrode BAR. The Court then told Council they had acted improperly.

A request by Amy Bayer, owner of the home, at the May 2002, BAR meeting to demolish and encapsulate with new construction a portion of the west wall of the two story rear section as well as a portion of the east wall of the rear freestanding "guest house," was denied. That was based on the Board's finding that the proposed changes violated certain criteria dealing with the preservation of buildings in the City's Old and Historic District.

On June 15, 2002, City Council reversed that decision by a vote of 3-0. However, only five of seven members were present and only three voted due to two abstentions.

Historic Alexandria Foundation, in concert with a group of Bayer's neighbors, appealed the decision to the Circuit Court on the grounds Council had failed to apply Zoning Ordinance criteria. In April 2003, the court ruled: (1) Council had failed to consider the criteria; and (2) Council's decision was contrary to law. The court returned the case to Council for reconsideration.

THIS ACTION BY the court was significant, not so much for the essence of the appeal, but because a reversal of BAR has not been appealed to the Circuit Court for more than a decade, according to records.

Council returned the case to BAR which, in turn, brought the matter back to the Planning and Zoning Department staff for reevaluation. There were also significant changes made to the original proposal by the owner and her architect.

Upon reexamination, staff concluded, that "given the facts that this section ... is not visible from the public right-of-way ... staff has little objection to the capsulation/demolition ..." Staff was supported in that opinion by speakers at the January 7, BAR session.

Charles Ablard, speaking for Historic Alexandria Foundation, said, "We are pleased to see improvements in the design ... We work with homeowners in preserving historic homes. The proposed addition preserves open space even though it is more than 600 square feet."

One of Bayer's neighbors who had opposed the original plan said, "The last time I was here [BAR public hearing] I spoke in opposition. I wanted to come back and commend the owner and her architect for coming up with this improved design."

BAR CHAIRMAN Thomas Hulfish III, noted, "We have guidelines and as long as everyone follows those guidelines it benefits everyone." He was joined by Board member Michael Wheeler who praised the new design saying, "This is a vast improvement over what we saw originally."

In their report, staff noted, "The additions meet the recommendations in the Design Guidelines. The addition is clearly subservient to the historic main block of the house" and "the addition is located in one of the most visually obscure areas of the lot..."

OTCA, one of those calling for City Council to "uphold the BAR's denial of the demolition" was not represented at the January 7, BAR meeting. The vote to approve Bayer's request was unanimous.