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Buyers Beware — of County Building Regulations

Wife hopes her husband can spend his first night home from Iraq in his new home, if county says yes.

Most people who go through the process of building a home claim they will never do it a second time due to the usual multiplicity of frustrations encountered during the process. Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors has increased that list of potential frustrations as one Lee District couple is painfully aware.

After years of hit and miss enforcement, the Board of Supervisors has decided to change tactics and diligently enforce the 35 foot height limit on new residential construction. As a result, a newly constructed "McMansion" at 3303 Arundel Avenue in the Groveton section of Lee District now sports a "flat top" roof cut to bring it into compliance.

Although the natural topography of the land upon which the home sits is severely sloped toward Spring Drive to its rear, the 35 foot height limit is calculated from midpoint of the grade to midpoint of the roof. "Even by those measurements the height of this home was well above the 35 foot limit," said Jeffrey McKay, chief of staff to Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman.

"Actually, in this case the steep grade is working to the advantage of the builder. But, steep grade or flat land there is no way you can build a 35 foot four story home measuring from the lowest to the highest point," McKay said.

Although the home was complete, the County would not issue an occupancy permit until the height was brought into compliance. To do that the builder, Oakmont Homes, Inc, of Great Falls, Va., shaved off the peak of the roof creating a flat roof from one side to the other.

"Due to the way the roof trusses are engineered we were able to remove just the top trusses or the triangles and replace that portion with a flat roof," said builder Eric Pilka, owner, Oakmont Homes.

"The buyers decided they wanted to finish off the flat roof line with a widow's walk so that is what we are in the process of doing. Removal of the peak has no practical effect on the utility or stability of the house. The new roof will support snow and the attic was never intended as storage space," Pilka explained.

THOSE BUYERS are William and Lisa McMillin. Bill is also Capt. William McMillin who is scheduled to arrive home this Friday from

a year's deployment in Iraq as a U.S. Army Reservist attached to the 3rd Medical Command out of Georgia. In civilian life, he is employed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Lisa is a civilian contractor with DoD.

"We have been struggling with this house for the past three years. Every time we think everything is okay something else pops up from the County. This has been a terrible and very expensive process for us. It has cost us double the original price with all the changes," said Lisa McMillin.

"We sold our home in Ashburn last November. I and our two children have been living with my mother since then. But, with my husband coming home Friday, if we don't get our occupancy permit by then we'll have to move into a hotel. I was hoping he could spend his first night home in our new house," she said.

They were allowed to move their furniture into the house through a special permit issued by the County, according to McKay. They can move in as soon as the occupancy permit is issued, which could occur prior to William McMillin's arrival Friday. "But, I'm very skeptical of that happening," said Lisa

"All the final measurements have been completed and I thought they would issue the occupancy permit but then the inspector said that the ground on the slope seemed mushy from the rain and he wanted to make an additional inspection when it is dry," she said.

"Hopefully, we can accomplish that this Thursday or Friday since the temperature is supposed to be back up and the weather dry," Pilkin said. "As far as I know, everything else has been satisfied."

Lisa McMillin is suspicious that "someone in the neighborhood keeps reporting things to the County that are just not true. I think they think this is a developer building this home as infill for speculation. It's only county taxpayers who want to move into their new home," she said.

"All I want to do is resolve all the issues and get into the house. But, every time I turn around it's something else," she said.

"When we started building we never intended to have it grow so large. Only the main level and upstairs are finished off. The basement is unfinished and the sub-basement is just an area behind the rear retaining wall that is not intended for use," she explained.

THE McMILLIN home was already underway when County Board of

Supervisors decided to seriously deal with the height issue for new residential construction, according to McKay. "I feel badly for the homeowners in this case. But, the builder was aware of the

regulations from the beginning," he said

"He was told that it did not appear to meet the height limit according to the procedure to arrive at that limit when dealing with a sloping lot. We are working with the homeowners to help them get their occupancy permit," he said.

"Although this is the only situation of this kind we are presently aware of in Lee District, it is certainly not the only one in the county. There is spot checking going on throughout the county," McKay said.

"We are serious about this enforcement. I am hoping word of this case spreads throughout the building community so that other homeowners are not put in a similar situation," he said.

Lisa McMillin's suspicions about neighborhood complaints may be well founded. Referring to the McMillin home, McKay said, "This is a case where the County is strictly enforcing the code based on complaints from the Groveton neighborhood."

It is a classic case of new extra large construction occurring in a long established neighborhood where most of the homes were constructed decades ago on a much smaller scale. Two of those homes, across Spring Drive directly facing the rear of the McMillin home, are single-story, bungalow-style dwellings.

The view from their front door is now of this massive, four story structure. The homes on either side of 3303 Arundel Ave. are also dwarfed by it from the rear. However, from the Arundel Avenue perspective the new home appear to complement its adjacent lot neighbors.

In many cases of infill development, the argument does not center on height as much as mass and scale and the rather allusive standard of "neighborhood character." In several cases the "neighborhood character" argument has been raised in an effort to halt so-called "McMansion" infill. Thus far, none has passed legal muster on its own merit, although it has been an element of some successful multi-faceted zoning/subdivision cases.

As for the McMillins, they could stand some Little Orphan Annie right about now and have the sun come out tomorrow.