Close Quarters on Ridge Avenue

Close Quarters on Ridge Avenue

Subdivision proposal prompts a look into by-right development.

It is hard to find a swath of undeveloped land within the City of Fairfax these days.

Now, most of the building that goes on in the Fairfax area is in-fill, building on small plots of land between other structures or tearing down older structures to make new ones, said Dave Hudson, director of community development and planning for the City of Fairfax.

"When the majority of property is developed, particularly in the context of neighborhoods, there are still frequently small pieces of property located within subdivisions," said Hudson.

One of these properties is a 4-acre trapezoid of land on a hill, bordered by Ridge Avenue and Old Lee Highway. Its size and location in the heart of the City of Fairfax make it a desirable plot, but to many neighbors in the surrounding developments, the best part of the land is the tree canopy it provides.

"You see this glorious tree canopy, and that’s all going to go," said Great Oaks resident Gary Bottorf.

DEVELOPER D.R. HORTON submitted its third proposal for the development of the property recently, called "The Bluffs at Great Oaks." City staff determined that several aspects of the development are inconsistent with city code. The developer is working with the development plan to fit it in with city code, but several neighbors think the plan could be improved.

"This property, if you look at it and walk it, is highly unsuited for development," said Bottorf. "It slopes dramatically. To develop it, you are going to have to remove tons of dirt."

The land is hilly and drops down from the Great Oaks development to Ridge Avenue. Two large swales, or ditches, run through the property as well, said Great Oaks resident Pat Gallagher, whose property backs up closely to The Bluffs at Great Oaks site.

"[The property] is pretty from a distance, but it's a tough physical site," she said. "Maybe that's why it has never been built on before."

Many of the homes in the Great Oaks development, to the west of the property off Old Lee Highway, were built into the slopes and on top of the hills in the property. Houses in the subdivision, developed in the 1970s by Lester H. Shor, were built around the existing trees, with streets such as "Hemlock Way" and "Beech Tree Court" named after them.

Gallagher said she is not opposed to the development, but would like to see the maximum number of existing trees retained, as well as a buffer of undeveloped land between Great Oaks and the proposed development.

"Some of the trees are real big," said Gallagher. Some of them may be designated "century" trees, she said, at over 100 years old. Gallagher also said that, after researching beech trees, she found they grow only in certain climates and areas, and that there is a grove of beech trees nearby.

"I have a generous yard and won't ever lose that, but it would be nice to maintain the treed look as you come up from [Fairfax] Circle," said Gallagher. She said she would like for a parcel of the land to be designated as open space and for the development to work more closely with the trees on the property.

"I'm not opposed [to the development], but I wanted it to be more responsible," said Gallagher. "The entry from [Fairfax] Circle is one of the big entrances to the city."

"I think careful consideration should be made to each project as it's presented, to surrounding neighborhoods that may exist or what exactly is nearby," said Carmen Sevilla, president of the Great Oaks Homeowners Association. "Hopefully, not to create these flattened treeless sections of homes that don't have character or ambiance, that are not in keeping with the things that are surrounding [them]."

FOR THE development to conform to city standards, D.R. Horton and the Engineering Groupe can do several things, said Hudson. They can go back and revise the plan so that it is consistent with code, approach the City Council for variance from some of the requirements, or conduct a more substantial redesign of the project, asking for rezonings or special exceptions.

"The direction I got from the mayor and City Council [at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 15] was that the by-right development of the property would not be the best configuration of the property from ours and the neighbors' perspective," said Hudson.

The larger issue here, said Mayor Robert Lederer at the meeting, was by-right development, or the ability of a developer to build or rebuild anything as long as it conforms to zoning standards such as setbacks and building height. Lederer directed Hudson and city staff to take another look at by-right development as it stands in the City of Fairfax.

"It's clear that the City of Fairfax doesn't have big wide fields left for redevelopment," he said. "As a result, we need to re-look at our by-right ordinances to see whether or not they'll serve the City as well in 2005 as in 1980, when they were written."

The city's by-right ordinances were set up to control the development of big tracts of land, said Hudson. "These ordinances served the city very well over the years," he said. "All the subdivisions in the city are a result of those ordinances."

But by-right ordinances do not work well with in-fill development, said Hudson. Many current developments, like Great Oaks, were built years ago, and housing tastes and budgets have changed since then. Houses are larger, he said, and many families today desire larger kitchens, bedroom suites, and other features that weren't common when most neighborhoods in the City of Fairfax were built.

"When a developer tears a smaller house down, chances are the new one is going to be larger than all the other houses," said Hudson. "It is really inconsistent with the fabric of the neighborhoods existing there."

"It's OK if you live in Warrenton, but if you live in a community as tightly spaced as this, then it causes all types of problems," said Bottorf.

ZONING REGULATIONS stipulate a maximum of three stories on a single-family residential building, said Hudson. "In a neighborhood of one-stories, three stories are pretty tall," he said.

Examples of ordinances governing development include a required 20 percent tree cover for R2 (single-family residential), 25 percent maximum lot coverage for parking surfaces in rear and front yards, and garages not to exceed 50 percent of the house footprint.

"What's happened is, I hear more and more concern from the community on by-right redevelopment," said Lederer. "This tells me that if the community doesn’t think by-right development serves the community to its best interests, then we need to look at by-right development."

To do this, said Hudson, city staff will begin by looking at neighborhood patterns to determine the "essential characteristics" of those neighborhoods.

"Then [staff] will proceed to look at bulk requirements contained in zoning regulations, and see if we can tweak those so that the development will be more consistent with the features of the neighborhood," said Hudson.

Lederer said that an examination of by-right development is a "priority," and Hudson said that staff will begin the project soon.

"What does by-right mean? Can any of us do something by-right?" said Gallagher. "I can't plant a bush or change a paint color without telling the neighbors. … We can't do just what we want anymore. We're in closer quarters and we have more sensibilities."