A Home or a Castle?

A Home or a Castle?

The eye of the beholder makes all the difference — or does it?

This is the second in a series on infill development.

T.S. Eliot, the oft-quoted poet, in his "Four Quartets" wrote, "Home is where one starts from. As we grow older, the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated."

There may be nothing of a tangible nature more sanctified on a universal scale than one's home. It is touchstone of the past, a manifestation of future hopes and dreams, and "the castle," no matter how humble, which serves as the bastion against an unrelenting world.

When the essence, or the perceived essence, of that place is challenged it can unleash a torrent of emotion that knows no boundaries. That is basically what is happening in many cases throughout the entire region when older, more modest neighborhoods are faced with the construction of much larger, more massive homes or extensive additions to existing homes.

From a land use perspective it is know as "infill development." This process generates the greatest emotion when it applies to "residential infill development."

It can, and often does, turn neighbor against neighbor, split local government agencies, pit elected officials against one another and against the bureaucracies they oversee. Such a case in point, now being played out in Alexandria, is the restructuring of 2510 King St.

Neighbors on both sides and to the immediate rear of the property, as well as others in the vicinity, have expressed outrage that a long-standing, modest ranch home of 2,160 square feet was demolished to be replaced by a 38-feet high, three-story, 5,700-plus square foot residence. They maintain that it will "destroy the character of the neighborhood" and adversely impact what they perceive as a "gateway" to Old Town.

"We want a reasonable size house on that lot. We are not opposed to a new home there but what's planned is just too big for the lot.

It will completely change the entire character of our neighborhood," said Marsha Roberts and Robert Rector, residents of 2512 King St.

In addition to contesting the massiveness of the new home, particularly as it pertains to the size of the lot and its ultimate proximity to their eastern property line, they question its ultimate stability. They maintain the soil in that area contains marine clay, soil that remains somewhat fluid depending on moisture.

The presence of marine clay at the site has been challenged by Alexandria Director of Code Enforcement Arthur Dahlberg. "The entire city has been mapped for marine clay. This area did not show for marine clay," said Dahlberg.

"However, it can vary from lot to lot. We've had a soil investigation done at the site. We've had multiple core borings at the site. And we've had inspectors examine the site," he insisted.

However, Roberts and Rector have personal experience with marine clay at their home. They had to have the porch area closest to 2510 completely rebuttressed, at substantial expense, due to sinking and shifting in structural supports due to the fluidity of the soil.

"We make sure buildings are built safely and are safe after they are built. We have absolutely done exactly what we are supposed to do," Dahlberg said.

ANOTHER STAUNCH OPPONENT to this infill project is Betty Ward, who has lived in her 703 Braxton Place home for the past 52 years. It is located immediately to the rear of 2510 King St., just across the alley, Outlook Lane.

She has taken her concern directly to City Hall, to both elected leaders and various municipal departments. "Alexandria officials take the position that they have to go with what is proposed by Richmond when it comes to code enforcement. We have reasonable issues and the city has ignored us," she said.

She also joined Roberts and Rector in claiming that the property had not been posted properly prior to demolition of the older home. "It is supposed to be posted for 10 days prior to any action to give neighbors a chance to react. That was not done," Ward said.

When questioned on this point, Dahlberg said, "It is not the purpose of the building code demolition permit posting to notify the neighbors. The purpose of the posting in our case is to make sure the inspectors know everything has been done properly."

Dahlberg explained that a demolition or "encapsulation" permit issued by the Board of Architectural Review is the one that notifies the public "so they can attend a public hearing" to express their views. But, that normally applies only to properties within one of the historic districts over which BAR has jurisdiction. That is not the case at this site.

Ward has also accumulated a long history on the evolution of 2510 King St. Part of that history pertains to a private easement allegedly established by the original owner, Edgar Feldtkeller, running along the east side of the property and shared by 2506 King St. Its supposed purpose was to provide access to the alley and garage area.

The abandonment of that easement is in question by those opposing the new construction. Its history, purpose, legal standing and current status are also uncertain. Opponents claim that if the easement is still operative the lot's square footage is insufficient to allow the proposed new structure. No final determination has been made on that claim at this time.

ON THE FLIP SIDE of this confrontation are the owners of 2510 King St., Mr. and Mrs. Charles P. Hurley. They previously resided in the original structure and decided to replace it with their proposed new home.

"With the price of land in this area, it's cheaper to build a new home than move. We believe that our house will be no larger than some others in the neighborhood. There are a lot of large homes in that neighborhood," Hurley said.

"We're kind of mystified by all these claims. We've had a soil engineer who has certified there is no marine clay on our property. As for the size, do we have to go around the neighborhood and count square footage?" he asked rhetorically.

He also maintained that the house they had torn down was not really consistent with its surrounding neighbors. "They [the objecting neighbors] never told us originally of their objections. We only found out about them through e-mails from friendly neighbors," Hurley said.

"We've tried to be compliant since day one. We've found all this opposition to be very frustrating. The only thing we want to do is build a new house," he maintained.

As for the so-called easement, Hurley, who is a practicing attorney with Mayer, Brown, Powe & Maw LLP in the District of Columbia, believes the easement "no longer exists." He maintains his neighbor, Robert Evans, 2506 King St., with which he shared the driveway easement "approached us" about removing the driveway.

"He actually paid for the removal of the driveway and we reimbursed him for one half the cost. We probably wouldn't have decided to build the new home if the driveway was still there. Evans changed his view on the driveway and easement after we announced our new house," he said.

"Even if the easement still exists it doesn't impact the square footage of the house. However, we believe the easement was abandoned," he said. This can happen through either of two legal processes known as abandonment or extinguishment by estoppels, according to Hurley.

Another issue raised by opponents was removal of asbestos during the demolition process. They maintained that this was not done in a proper manner as required by federal law.

However, Hurley explained that asbestos removal procedures do not apply to residential properties. This was verified by Dahlberg.

"This is because there is usually very little asbestos in residential properties as compared with commercial structures. It's usually confined to the adhesive used in floor tiles in older homes and dissipates in the air," Dahlberg explained.

Another point of contention arose when the foundation was dug and soil was piled along the King Street side of the property. There was also the issue of an open foundation with no shoring along the walls. Neighbors maintained this was unsafe to workers as well as children in the neighborhood. They alerted the Virginia office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"OSHA came out because of complaints from neighbors. They won't tell us who called them but they have not cited us for any violations," Hurley said.

As for the foundation being a potential danger to children, Hurley maintains that he was the one who had his contractor install a chain link fence around the construction site at a cost of $1,500.

Finally, on the night of March 10 the entire matter boiled over. A face-to-face confrontation developed between drivers of trucks delivering cement, workers in the foundation excavation and irate neighbors. The problem was the hour the trucks arrived, approximately 5:20 p.m. Alexandria's noise abatement ordinance calls for all construction in the city to cease by 6 p.m.

Neighbors called Alexandria Police to enforce the noise abatement ordinance. "A police officer arrived on the scene at approximately 6:15 p.m. After assessing the situation, the officer indicated he had no authority to stop the work and called his supervisor," according to an e-mail from "Alexandria Taxpayers," the name adopted by the opposing neighbors.

Things went from bad to worse between the truck drivers, construction crews, police and neighbors. Finally, the officer advised two additional cement trucks, waiting to enter the site, to leave due to darkness, according to the e-mail.

When Hurley was made aware of the incident he sent an e-mail to the neighborhood group apologizing and stating that the truck drivers and construction workers had acted on their own after being delayed in getting to the site. They were to have arrived by 1:30 p.m. and completed the delivery by 4:30 p.m., according to Hurley.

Rector maintains, "Hurley has not made any attempt to work with the neighborhood. The day he showed us the plans his attitude was, ‘This is what we are going to do. I'm not asking for your opinion or approval.’"

Hurley's counter argument is, "There is almost a mob mentality going on. They have adopted this ‘Gateway’ name just to embellish their position."

Caught up in this morass is City Council. Various members have offered their opinions to the concerned citizens, not only on this project but also on the subject of residential infill and the phenomenon of mansionization.

In answer to neighborhood pleas for aid, both Councilmen Rob Krupika and Andrew Macdonald acknowledged that this project is only a microcosm of the overall problem presented by residential infill development, particularly in older established neighborhoods.

Krupicka, referring to another case dealing with a mansionization claim, said, "It illustrates the fact that Virginia is a property rights state and local government's powers only go so far."

Macdonald acknowledged to the group, "It's very clear that Alexandria needs to establish stronger regulations for so-called "by-right" site plan projects. As it stands now, such projects receive very little scrutiny. As the value of undeveloped land continues to rise, this problem is bound to get worse, not better."

That fact has been evidenced not only throughout the Washington Metropolitan Region but also the nation. What's happening on both side of the debate will be addressed in the final element of this series.