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McLean Homeowners Fight Assessments

New RPA regulations lead to land-use constrictions, excess taxes, residents say.

Five McLean homeowners met with the Fairfax County Board of Equalization (BOE) Monday night to fight their property assessments, saying new environmental regulations reduce the amount of usable land they own and their property taxes should be decreased.

As a result of resource protection areas (RPAs) designated by the Chesapeake Watershed Ordinance and put into effect Nov. 18, 2003, these homeowners say their property tax is not representative of the amount of land they own that can be used.

John Freedman of the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services gave the BOE a brief presentation about the RPAs before the homeowners pled their cases.

“RPAs need to be designated on all perennial streams,” Freedman said, in order to protect the Chesapeake Bay Watershed water supply.

“These are sensitive areas that development may encroach upon,” he said. The ordinances require a 100-foot buffer zone on either side of a perennial stream, which can be amended or given special-exception waivers if the homeowner wants to make improvements or build new structures on his property, Freedman said.

“Typically, streams are on the back portion of the lot, which means that houses are planned in the front-yard setback,” he said. With respect to any work a homeowner whose property has land restrictions due to an RPA can do, “Minor additions can be built of 1,000 square feet or up to 2 percent of the lot area for a maximum of 2,500 square feet,” he said.

The first homeowner to testify and request a property tax exemption was Frank Crandall, a member of the McLean Citizens Association.

“Sixty-five percent of my property falls into the RPA,” Crandall said.

He described his house as a “tear-down” property, meaning that if someone else were to buy the land, the existing house would most likely be taken down and a new home built. The RPA constraints would seriously diminish the resale value of the property, he said.

“We’re limited to a pretty modest, redevelopment-style house. We wouldn’t be able to do a mansion by any stretch of the imagination,” Crandall said. “The RPA diminishes the value to anyone that might want to buy it.”

“What is the highest and best use of your property, do you think?” asked board member John Yeatman.

“Well, residential is the only thing it’s zoned for, so the land can’t be subdivided,” Crandall said, meaning the only option is for a house to be on the property.

Ruth Gordon, assessor for the county, said most of the value of Crandall’s property came from the land itself.

“It is possible that improvements (the house) could be undervalued. We didn’t go inside the house,” she said. “The land values were reviewed and determined to be worth between $800,000 and $2 million,” she said.

A COMPARABLE PROPERTY had recently sold for $900,000, but the property was half the size of Crandall’s, Gordon said. “Regardless of the issue of RPA … the area should be sufficient to construct a new home without encroaching on the RPA,” she said.

Chairman James D. Lafley acknowledged the RPA did have some impact on Crandall’s property. “The real question is, should we grant an easement of his property taxes or reconfirm the county’s assessment?” he asked.

Board member Julia Kriss agreed that Crandall’s property was impacted and asked, “But how do you quantify that?”

Lafley presented a motion to reduce Crandall’s assessment by $30,000, “which would cover all engineering costs to tear down the house,” he said.

“While the market place has been accelerated in recent years, I think that $30,000 may not be sufficient,” Yeatman said. “The property is certainly a buildable site. It’s just a matter of what type of building.”

He recommended the property assessment be reduced to $850,000, which was approved by the board.

The second homeowner, Ann Huffman, asked the board before starting her presentation to hold questions until she was finished, “because this will take the entire 10 minutes.”

(The homeowners were given 10 minutes to plead their case, followed by a 10-minute rebuttal by the county.)

After listing nine errors listed by the county in her assessment, Huffman said that “there are two classes of property in Fairfax County now, those with RPAs and those without. Tax assessment treatment must take this into account,” she said.

Because she did not allow the county’s assessor to go into her home to be assessed, it was decided by Huffman and the board that the value of the house was not a matter of contention.

“RPAs can severely restrict future use, which reduces market value,” she said. “Well-informed home buyers will see their risks. Can they get an administrative waiver or will they have to go through the very expensive and time-consuming exceptions process?” she asked.

When she and her husband purchased their land to have their “dream house” built, later plans for the property included a pool and pool house, which would have to be placed toward the front yard of the property under the RPA regulations. She outlined a five-step process it would take to get the exceptions needed to build the pool, at a cost of $16,000.

“That’s just for the engineering costs, and the process has no guarantee of success,” she said.

“There appears to be an area outside the RPAs that would allow for the construction of a pool,” Gordon said. “(Huffman) indicated that she would not be able to obtain a variance from the Zoning Board (to build in the RPA area). The Chesapeake Bay Preservation ordinance is a stand-alone board,” she said.

“The case here is that you built your dream houses and had planned to put the pool in the back, but the RPA altered it, is that correct?” Lafley asked Huffman.

“I want to recover the costs it’s going to take to get the money back I paid for the accessory building that couldn’t be put up,” she said.

“She has a 5-acre lot. It is a substantial portion of the land in an RPA,” Kriss said. “The value of the lot is still low but on target with the rest of the area.”

LAFLEY, AFTER MUCH WHISPERING among board members, proposed a motion to reduce the assessment by $30,000 to cover engineering fees. The motion was seconded but voted down, with no reductions made to the assessment.

The board heard an appeal from Duane McCliggott, who said that “McMansions” were being built all around his house, making his a “tear-down” like Crandall’s.

“The issue I have is that the land value did not take the RPA into consideration when being assessed,” he said. “The value is correct without the RPA, but the RPA is removing the most attractive part of my five acres (from being used),” McCliggott said.

In addition, he said that his neighbor, who rents his house to five musicians “whose hours are 8:30 p.m. until 4 in the morning,” has an easement going across McCliggott’s front yard, and because of curves in the driveway , he hears cars speeding up and slowing down all night.

“The easement across the front yard is the only access road to that property,” Kriss asked.

“Yes, it is, and it can’t be changed,” McCliggott said.

“I saw no impact of value by the RPA and think the value of the property should be approved,” Gordon said.

“I hear what you’re saying, but it sounds like you’re sitting on a goldmine,” Lafley said after McCliggott said that within the next few years, nine “McMansions” will be constructed around his property.

“I understand the RPA, I understand the outlet road, but the lots are being sold around you. The highest and best use of your property would be to sell it to a developer, tear down your house and put up a McMansion,” Lafley said.

Yeatman suggested that the property value be reduced to $1 million, based on the land value alone, which was unanimously approved by the board.