Changing Face of Vienna

Changing Face of Vienna

Bigger is better?

The face of Vienna is changing, the homes included. The recent boom in home construction has transformed whole neighborhoods, as the original brick ramblers are renovated or replaced with larger homes, sparking debate among town residents. Fearing a plague of "McMansions" sprouting up in Vienna, residents have raised the issues of town character, use of natural resources, rising real estate taxes and aesthetic acceptability.

Residents such as Gerry Bishop and Pamela Bartlett worry about the effect these homes will have on their community. "When I see a house like that, I see a tremendous waste of natural resources," said Bishop, concerned about the extra resources required to heat, cool and build these larger homes.

Bartlett said friends have expressed their worries to her about the extra strain on the town's sewer services.

Deborah Brehony of J.P. Brehony Homes and Commonwealth Housing Corp. said she hears a lot of complaints — from fears that real estate taxes will rise to people feeling squeezed out by the new development. She lamented the lack of affordable housing in Vienna that makes it more difficult for younger families to move in.

RETAINING THE SMALL-TOWN aesthetic and character is a central issue in the debate over the new homes and is a concern for builders and residents alike. Preserving this atmosphere in Vienna is on many residents' minds as Northern Virginia continues to change and grow. The classic Vienna character has been a draw for many families and a reason to rebuild and renovate instead of move for some, such as Dan Sommerville, who joined J.P. Brehony Homes as vice president after having Brehony build his home.

Sommerville and his wife grew up in Vienna and had lived in their Park Street home for four years before they decided it was too small a place to spend the rest of their lives, but they had no desire to leave the town itself. He said he does not see many changes to Vienna's character; rather he referred to several nearby, recently redeveloped streets that have very close-knit communities.

James Heivilin of Old Dominion Homecrafters, whose company does only renovations, reports this same desire of his customers to remain in the town, both for the location and the equity that they now have in their homes.

However, the new homes are not just bigger versions of the originals. The customers of Brehony and Heivilin, as well as Steve Bukont of Ayr Hill Homes, are asking for major differences in styles and interiors — front porches and verandas and a growing demand for outdoor living spaces, nine- and 10-foot ceilings. But they are not looking for cathedral heights or interior stonework, and instead of formal living rooms and parlors, they often want a more open style of interior architecture that allows for "flex-space." Brehony said he has seen more instances of multi-generational housing as well, where customers either are bringing their parents into their homes or are anticipating doing so.

"People are trying to look back to a former time that was more simple," Brehony said about the current trend of designing houses "more like grandma's."

This older style, referred to by Bukont as the "American Vernacular," is part of the changing look of Vienna. He said that there is a sense of nostalgia in this style, as customers are looking to create a sense of history.

"We wanted our home to look like it had always belonged in Vienna," B.J. Donaldson said about designing her home, built by J.P. Brehony. It seemed to work, as she has been approached by visitors believing her house was an older Vienna home.

Courtney Schrader was also concerned about maintaining the trees when her house was built. She said she believes that many of these new homes are making the neighborhoods look more like the historic district and the old-town style similar to where she grew up in upstate New York. She had also wanted the outdoor living space because of her young children.

However, not all homes take on the hometown look. Bukont, who has been building in Vienna for 10 years, cited the increasing diversity in the area as part of the changing taste. People want their homes to resemble the places they have been or where they are from. Put simply, there are new and different ideas about what looks good.

Councilwoman Maud Robinson also referred to changing demographics, saying that "these huge McMansions are part of the increasing affluence in the area."

OPPONENTS and homeowners alike draw a line between a larger home tastefully done and the dreaded "McMansions." Donaldson referred to McMansions as houses that are overwhelming, have little character and with a poor scale of house to the size of the lot.

Bartlett expanded the definition to homes that are "too broad, too high, use too many resources to heat and cool, cost too much money, are generally out of character with the neighborhood." These houses stand in contrast to other newer homes that have been designed to fit within their lots and to work with the character of the area.

Although Bukont finds the town's 25 percent lot coverage rule restrictive, he gives it the credit for keeping the town green. Vienna's zoning laws, including lot coverage, a 35-foot height limit from the finished grade to the peak of the roof and setback requirements that vary by zone, are more restrictive than those set by Arlington and Fairfax Counties, even with new emergency legislation passed to control the building activity.

Arlington's lot coverage limit is now on a sliding scale from 25-53 percent, depending on zoning and the presence of a front porch and/or detached garage. While the maximum height is also 35 feet, because it is measured at the four corners from the grade to the midpoint of the roof it, allows for more height than Vienna. Fairfax County has no percentage-based lot coverage restriction, but rather controls occupied area through setbacks based on residential districts, which are determined by size of land lots and uses.

HOWEVER, as neighboring counties have enacted new legislation in reaction to the new building some residents like Bishop and Bartlett are asking why the Town of Vienna is not doing the same.

Councilwoman Laurie Cole, formerly of the Board of Zoning Appeals, explains that the town must strike a balance between developers and the homeowners who feel the laws are too restrictive and other residents who say they are not enough. The goal of the town, she says, is to do this while preserving Vienna's small-town character.

Virginia law itself limits what the town can regulate. Virginia adheres to the Dillon Rule, which is known as an exclusive rule. Under this system, local governments have only those powers the Virginia state government has granted to them. In the opposite system, an inclusive rule, the local government is free to do anything except what is prohibited by the state. When it comes to zoning, the aesthetic appearance of a house, its color, architecture and style are not under the jurisdiction of a local government's normal zoning laws. These can be restricted, however, by the neighborhoods through covenants and homeowners associations.

Robinson credits the foresight of the town's forefathers in creating such restrictive zoning during the 1960s and 1970s so that there is not the need for emergency legislation. "Like any part of change, there are good parts and bad parts," she said, adding that, in spite of all the recent change and growth, Vienna has retained its small-town identity.