Stop, Look, Build

Stop, Look, Build

City Council reviews infill development policies at Feb. 28 meeting.

The "look" of Fairfax was the issue of the evening Tuesday, Feb. 28. Last fall, the council directed planning staff to review the City of Fairfax’s policies regarding time limits on residential construction completion, fences in front yards, and the scale and character of new and upgraded housing. At the time, Mayor Rob Lederer and other councilmembers expressed concern that new development occurring in Fairfax — mostly infill development, as the city is more or less built out — was becoming too large-scale, with massive houses dwarfing older neighborhoods and projects lagging for months and years.

Planning staff's first recommendation was that the city ask state lawmakers to allow for an amendment of the blight ordinance to include incomplete construction projects where the building permit has been suspended due to lack of progress.

"It’s important to note that many home-improvement projects are completed slowly because of a lack of funds," said senior planner Megan Cronise. Piling on more fees to the property owner of an incomplete project would backfire, she said, but if the amendment is successful, then these projects count as blights and can be treated as such.

Planning staff also recommended that the City Council regulate fences put up by homeowners, restricting the height to 4 feet. Currently, said Cronise, the maximum fence height is 6 feet, but a 6-foot-tall fence up against the property line gives the impression of a fortress.

"Shorter fences are a bit more attractive," said Cronise. Property owners could come to the Board of Zoning Appeals with individual exceptions, she said, but the recommended by-right fence height would be 4 feet. According to David Hudson, director of Planning and Community Development, most surrounding jurisdictions restrict fence heights to 4 feet as well.

"I don't want to do something with the assumption that it's going to create all this work for the BZA," said Lederer.

Planning Commission member Cathy Pumphrey worried that restricting fence height was an extreme measure. "I worry we’re getting a little too prescriptive about where fences need to be and how tall they are," she said.

THE MAIN QUESTION, however, was how much to regulate the appearance of buildings in the city limits. The city has encouraged redevelopment, said Lederer, so it is a question of balance between allowing homeowners to do whatever they want with their property and keeping some control over the infill development.

Planning staff recommended creating neighborhood-specific books that would outline building patterns and architectural guidelines for future construction projects and infill development.

"Some infill fits the scale and size of the neighborhood," said planner Dan Malouff. "Some, not so much." To "fit in" with the surrounding properties, he said, a redevelopment must take into account the size of the property and setbacks, the elevation of the land, and architectural styles of other houses.

"The question is, does the city always want to keep the existing styles or would we rather have more unique designs?" said Malouff. "Some neighborhoods may have one answer, some may have another."

It is more important what the redeveloped house looks like against the other houses that what it looks like on its own, said Councilmember Gary Rasmussen. But Councilmember Scott Silverthorne said it was not up to the city to determine whether a house looks good.

"When you start to get into whether or not someone has a Victorian versus a contemporary versus a Colonial [house], I'm not sure you can do that legally," he said.

"We have to have an eye toward pragmatism," said Planning Commission member David Berenbaum. "Many people moved into the city because it's not a HOA." One of Fairfax's attractions is that homeowners can do what they like with their property, he said.

Lederer worried that the architectural guidelines proposed by planning staff were not enforceable enough. "That has zero teeth to it," he said.

However, said Hudson, the guidelines in the books would set up architectural principles such as building materials or roof lines and would be enforced by the Board of Architectural Review.

Another important consideration in infill development, said Councilmember Patrice Winter, is whether the property owners live in the home they are trying to rebuild. What seems to be popular now, she said, is for owners to tear down houses entirely and build much larger ones in their place.

Lederer wondered if the city could develop different building standards for owner-occupied properties and houses that are refurbished and resold by developers.

"I do think there is a difference between an owner-occupied home where they are remodeling their home and someone who doesn't care about the neighborhood, isn't going to live there, and is just trying to make a fast buck," he said.

CITY ATTORNEY Brian Lubkeman said that under the law, all property owners must be treated equally, since there is no way to determine a buyer’s motive.

Planning Commission member Terry Simmons suggested placing developers who promised to comply with the city’s set guidelines on an "approved builders" list, and offering incentives such as tax breaks to citizens who choose to use the approved builders.

The next stop in the process, said Cronise, is for the Planning Commission to analyze the recommendations and council comments. The Planning Commission will then bring their findings back to the City Council for review.

Other items addressed Tuesday included:

* The council unanimously approved a consent agenda which included consideration of a $290,686 contract award to Meadville Land Service for stream improvements on Accotink Creek between Lee Highway and Old Lee Highway; receiving a list of delinquent taxes from the city treasurer and considering publishing the list of delinquent real estate taxes and personal property taxes of more than $100; and introduction of a $1.8 million appropriation resolution for the Jermantown Road Capital Improvement Project.

* In the work session, the council gave the go-ahead to use general funds for a new audio-video system in the renovated City Council chambers. According to cable television manager Rachael Roth, the project will cost $602,999, of which $350,000 will be paid for with Cable Capital Grant funds. That leaves $252,999 to come out of general funds, she said. The new system will provide for a better sound system, better lighting, and computers on the dais for councilmembers.