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Infill Development: Challenges And Confrontations

A bricks and mortar question of "Whose ox is being gored?"

This is the first of a three part series on the subject of infill development" that has become an increasing challenge throughout the City of Alexandria.

Late on a Friday afternoon a cement truck arrived at the site planned for a new home in one of Alexandria's long established neighborhoods. Although the hour was approaching the City's limit on construction noise such an occurrence would not normally trigger heated, face-to-face confrontation and a call to the Alexandria Police Department. This one did.

For the reasons as to why this reaction occurred, it is necessary to not only go back to the genesis of this particular case but also to explore the root cause of the basic problem ---infill development. That is the technical name given by urban planners and local governing bodies.

When applied to older, established neighborhoods that have developed their own character over decades, particularly in historic areas such as Alexandria, more derogatory terminology has crept into the lexicon. The most popular is "mansionization" or since many of these "Big Whoppers" are stacked bricks and motor how about "McMansions."

March 9, ironically just 24 hours prior to the cement truck/neighbors stand off, Alexandria Planning Commission held a 90 minute work session on the very subject of residential infill development -- it's impact within the City, what to do about it, how to regulate it, and what are its nuances.

In kicking off the discussion, Eileen Fogarty, director, Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning, stated, "Communities across the region and the nation are studying this issue. We are fortunate here in Alexandria because we have many more tools in place to deal with this than most governments. But, it still poses some real challenges."

As she noted, 80 percent of the land in Alexandria is occupied by single family residences, in some design or another. The medium size of city homes is 2,300 square feet today. The average size of a so-call McMansion approaches nearly triple that square footage.

"In Alexandria it is a question of compatibility with surrounding homes when new construction is planned or taking place, It is usually not a question of meeting codes," she said.

TO MAKE HER POINT, she cited an example on upper King Street which is in the throes of a neighborhood confrontation over the size of the home to be constructed and the fact that an older, smaller long-time residence has been demolished to make way for the much larger house planned for the site.

"The house proposed for upper King Street met all the building code requirements. But, it does not mesh with the neighborhood around it," Fogarty said.

"However, in single family homes people don't want to be over regulated. That's why we need to clarify the language that is used to define neighborhood character," she said.

The separation between what is required under the building codes and what may or may not be desirable within a given neighborhood was clarified by Arthur Dahlberg, director, City Code Enforcement. "A couple of years ago the Building Code and zoning parted company. This occurred because the Building Code veered off into a different direction," he said.

"The Buiding Code is determined by the national standards. We do not address whether or not a particular private residence meets zoning requirements," Dahlberg told the Commissioners.

"In Virginia localities can not develop or change their building codes. The state code controls and that is fashioned after the national code," he stated.

IN LATE 2005 a case entitled North Latham Street came before the Commission. It dealt with a classic infill situation.

The developer proposed to subdivide two lots and then construct large houses that would have supposedly dwarfed the surrounding neighborhood. The petition was denied by the Commission. Their recommendation was approved by City Council.

Planning Commission's decision was founded on the concept of neighborhood character. They decided that if the development went forward as planned it would adversely impact that character in that the other homes were much smaller and of a very different style and ambiance.

Council's decision was appealed to Alexandria Circuit Court. On

December 19,2005, Judge Kemler ruled,"Section 11-1710(B) of the Alexandria Zoning Ordinance may not be interpreted to permit consideration of improvements on the lot when assessing whether 1) the proposed subdivided lots would be of substantially the same character as other lots in the subdivision, or 2) the subdivision as improved would detract from the value of the adjacent properties." The City appealed that decision.

Last week the Appellant Court reversed the decision in the City's favor. However, in their appeal, the City contented "the denial of the subdivision was based on other factors" one of which was that "the proposed subdivision would create a new "corner" lot that is not of substantially the same character as the other corner lots in the original subdivision."

It did not address the question of the proposed structure as out of character with the neighborhood. Furthermore, following the work session, Jill R. Applebaum, senior assistant city attorney, who announced the successful appeal to the Commission, cautioned that "it was a very narrow decision" not accompanied by a lot of judicial rationale.

"It applies only to this case. It cannot be interpreted as setting a precedent," she said.

Planning commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, Jr., emphasized the urgency faced by Alexandria in dealing with infill development. "We have tools to deal with this. But, we don't have enough tools. This (infill development) is a significant priority. We are going to loose the game if we don't move on this," he stated.

"It would be very educational to all of us if we could get examples of what was approved and what was eventually built," said Commissioner Donna Fossum.

A COMPREHENSIVE INFILL DEVELOPMENT study is planned for 2007, according to Fogarty. Until then Alexandria has an array of mechanisms to deal with the subject as spelled out doing the staff presentation. These include the following:

• Zoning Regulations: These include Floor Area Regulations (FAR); height restrictions based on roof type and orientation; parking and paving restrictions; and building set backs which may apply to front, rear and sides of the property.

•Subdivision Regulations: Include lot line changes but do not address lot coverage as a strictly defined percentage.

•Special Use Permits: These are required for parking reduction; lots without frontage; varying lot sizes in residential zones; and substandard lots. Normally not applied to residential projects.

•Review By Government Bodies: Board of Architectural Review oversees design review primarily within the historic districts; Board of Zoning Appeal deals with variances and special exceptions to setback, height and open space requirements; and the Planning Commission itself which makes overall recommendations to City Council pertaining to development.

However, as noted in the presentation "There is no "one size fits all" solution. Any discretionary review of all single-family houses would impact over 9,000 detached homes."

Until the 2007 study is complete staff suggested the consideration of interim regulations until the passage of further long-term infill zoning regulation amendments" can be proposed and adopted. Some suggested areas to be addressed in the short-term were:

Building Height: Limit infill development to be no higher than 120 percent of the average height of the adjacent neighborhood, unless SUP approved. This would apply to all building permits for single family additions and new construction.

•Adopt a Steep Slope Ordinance

•Make interim modifications to the Subdivision Ordinance

Other options for a neighborhood infill strategy suggested by staff included:

•Control lot coverage

•Modify the FAR requirements

•Establish building envelopes to deal with the visual impact of large structures on nearby neighbors

•Modify average front setback regulations

•Create incentives

•Publish design guidelines

As stated in their extensive staff report, "Residential Infill Development In Alexandria," ultimately, "the City may choose to adopt new and amended regulations to address modern building in its already developed neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the discussion needs to balance the harm that infill building can create against the burden of over regulation on individual homeowners."

It was emphasized that, "Developers and landowners need to have a clear picture of what is allowed and what specific rules will permit." When that is not the case it is a prescription for not only misunderstanding but also head on confrontation.

A case in point will be the subject of the second of this series. It has gone well beyond any academic consideration of what can and cannot be done when planning an infill development project. It is quickly evolving into urban warfare involving the protagonists as well as City Council and various elements of City government.