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Subdivide and Conquer

West End property owner wins in Supreme Court. But what’s next?

The 1950s-era house sits near the intersection of Latham Street and Surry Place, a quiet west-end neighborhood where lawns are neatly tended and children play soccer on spacious green lawns. From the street, the house could be the postcard image of domestic bliss. Yet the 49-year-old house is at the center of a legal storm between its absentee owner, who wants to demolish the house to build two larger ones and neighbors who describe his plans as contributing to a "McMansionization" of their postwar neighborhood.

City land records show that Barry Seymour purchased house on Oct. 16, 2004 for $519,700. Seymour, who lives in Fairfax Station, currently rents the house to tenants. But he has other long-range plans for the house. In 2005, he tried to get approval from City Hall to subdivide the property — the first step in his plans to demolish the house and build two new ones. Although the city’s staff report recommended approval of the subdivision, the Planning Commission denied the request. Seymour appealed the decision to City Council, who also denied Seymour’s request. He took the matter all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, who agreed that he has the right to subdivide his land as he sees fit.

"I was right all along," said Seymour after the decision was announced. "And the city wasted a lot of taxpayers’ money by trying to fight me on this."

When Seymour took his grievance to the Circuit Court, Deputy Planning Director Rich Josephson testified that "from a perspective of form and function," the property is a corner lot even though it was not on a corner — a distinction that would require the lot to be of the same character as "similarly situated" houses. Judge John Kloch ruled that the city was entitled to exercise discretion in applying the corner-lot rule, but the Virginia Supreme Court disagreed with Kloch.

"We hold that the trial court’s decision affirming the Planning Commission’s disapproval of Seymour’s resubdivision application was plainly wrong and without evidence to support it," wrote Justice Donald Lemons in the written opinion. "Because the definitions of a corner lot and an interior lot are mutually exclusive, a corner lot and an interior lot cannot be ‘similarly situated.’ Therefore, Seymour’s interior lot and the corner lots in the Latham subdivision are not ‘similarly situated.’"

<b>NOW THAT THE</b> court has handed down the ruling — essentially remanding the case back to the city — neighbors will once again have to confront Seymour’s plans for the property. City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa said that the Supreme Court’s decision has cleared the way for the subdivision to happen according to Seymour’s wishes. But neighbors of the Latham Street property are not happy about the prospect of what might happen after the subdivision.

"From a legal perspective, the subdivision is about drawing lines on a map," said Barry Cox, who lives across the street from the property. "But to me, this is about screwing up my neighborhood."

Cox said that he’s concerned about what will happen after the subdivision. He said that he’s seen properties Seymour built in other jurisdictions, some of which were presented during the City Council public hearing on the subdivision. His opinion is that the mass and scale of the kind of building Seymour would be interested in building in his neighborhood would be out of place. That’s why he signed a petition opposing the subdivision back in 2005. Since that time, the city has hired a new planning director and adopted an anti-McMansionization ordinance that requires builders to consider a neighborhood’s "character" when submitting proposals.

"I hope the new planning director will take into consideration the needs and wishes of nearby property owners," said neighbor Mary White, whose petition drive opposing the subdivision gathered 48 signatures. "And I hope that city officials will be careful to monitor demolition at 227 North Latham considering the background of the property owner."

Other neighbors agreed with White’s concern about Seymour’s plans for the property. In interviews and comments submitted to the clerk of the City Council, the neighbors cite a host of concerns about property values, continuity of architectural styles and quality of construction.

"Despite his claims to use quality materials, he clearly wished to build a house similar to that on Washington Boulevard, replete with vinyl siding on three sides," wrote neighbor Steve Johnson in a letter to the City Council members opposing the subdivision. "A wall of vinyl siding right outside my dining room window and back yard will negatively affect the value of my property as well as my enjoyment of my property."

<b>FOR CITY OFFICIALS</b>, the issue of subdivision is a matter of mathematics — calculating how much land is on the property and whether it’s large enough to handle being subdivided. When Seymour first approached officials in the Department of Planning, they gave him little indication that his request for subdivision would be problematic.

"They told me it was as simple as simple could get," said Seymour, recalling a 2005 conversation in City Hall.

The staff report to the Planning Commission recommended approval for the subdivision, noting that the proposed subdivision would be consistent with other lots in the neighborhood in terms of area, width and configuration. The report explained that the average interior residential lot on Latham Street is 9,977 square feet, and Seymour’s proposed subdivision would create two lots of 9,323 and 9,478 square feet — measurements the report said were "consistent with the sizes of other lots in the area." But when the matter went before the Planning Commission, its members had more on their mind than numbers.

"The timing of the proposal coincided with a lot of other things," said Peter Lieberg, a zoning administrator. "At that time there were a lot of houses that were being demolished in Rosemont, Del Ray and North Ridge. The houses built in their place were bigger in scale, which prompted a discussion about infill development."

In government — just as in show business — timing can be everything. The Planning Commission and City Council voted against the proposed subdivision, fearing a potential McMansionization of the neighborhood. Yet now that the Supreme Court has acted, Seymour will probably be able to subdivide as expected. Nevertheless, city officials point out, he must still get approval for whatever plans he has for the two new properties on Latham Street.

Seymour said that he has no immediate plans for the properties. But he resents having to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court just to overcome the objections of neighborhood residents.

"Because I don’t live in Alexandria, I was viewed as an outsider," he said. "But there’s not two sets of rules for those who live in Alexandria and those who don’t. There’s one set of rule, which I followed."