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County Exploring Telling Homeowners About Issues That Prevent Tear-Downs

Homeowners could be notified in future tax assessments if their property is subject to any special circumstances that would prevent tearing down and rebuilding their house without County Board approval.

Such special circumstances would include homes on so-called pipe-stem lots, which have a narrow “stem” that runs from the street and does not meet requirements for minimum lot width, and in Resource Protection Areas, which help protect environmentally sensitive lands near streams.

If homes are subject to those circumstances, anyone wishing to tear down the current house and build a new one on the same property must go to the Arlington County Board for approval. Projects not hindered by such issues are permitted by right under zoning rules, so long as the new home continues to conform.

Board member Libby Garvey said she has spoken to County Manager Mark Schwartz about including a note to property owners in their tax assessments, which are mailed each year and outline the property tax bill due to the county.

“That’s one piece of paper that pretty much everyone in the county looks at,” Garvey told ARLnow last week. “So that seems like a really good place to put information like that with an asterisk or note, but we have to see if we can actually do that.”

Garvey and colleague John Vihstadt suggested the change at the July 15 County Board meeting, after a plan to build a new home in Ashton Heights ran into difficulties in June because of its location on a pipe-stem lot. The family that owns the N. Kenmore Street property did not realize it would require special approval to build a new house, a costly process in terms of time and expense.

After community meetings and some modifications to the proposed new house between June and July’s meetings, the Board unanimously approved the plan. Vihstadt said the county must make such issues more understandable for county residents, including on the designated web page for pipe-stem lots, which he said must be “a better information source.”

“Despite the happy ending, it would have been much simpler had the family known from the start that they faced this extra challenge,” Garvey said last week in an email to constituents. “We need to find a simple way for residents to know when their current or potential homes have some special situation that could affect their ability to build.”

Schwartz said at the July 15 meeting that while the county is committed to simplifying its permitting process, he warned that applicants must also do the necessary leg-work for such projects.

“I think people need to be aware there is still a requirement on their part to do their due diligence,” he said. “If they were to somehow rely on a notation on a website from us, it’s hard to believe but sometimes we make mistakes, and due diligence is required on the part of the applicant to do their research through the appropriate legal means.”

County Attorney Steve MacIsaac agreed, and noted that from a legal standpoint, the county can only help in so many ways.

“It’s incumbent on anyone who’s buying anything to be sure they know what they’re buying,” he said. “The ‘buyer beware’ phrase definitely applies to land, and you’ve got to know what you can do with it before you buy it.”

Image via county presentation

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