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The Right Note: Was It Reasonable?

by Mark Kelly June 21, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

County Board members, in every campaign speech and at the meeting that takes place at beginning of every year, talk about the need to address the affordability of housing in Arlington.

Market forces beyond their control clearly work against the Board, but so do many of the rules and regulations they create and defend. On Tuesday the Board voted unanimously to force a homeowner to pay an additional $20,000 (or more) to replace the roof on their home because it sits in the Maywood Neighborhood Historic District.

The homeowners were not attempting to change the historic design of their home, they simply did not believe they could afford up to $30,000 for tin shingles when asphalt shingles would cost just $6,000. On Tuesday, the County Board unanimously rejected the homeowners’ appeal of the April 2017 decision by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) which required the dramatically more expensive roofing option.

In the scope of review of zoning appeals it says that action should not be taken “which would be incongruous with the historical aspects of the district.” The HALRB ultimately determined that the lack of this particular tin roof would be incongruous. According to the zoning ordinance cited in the staff report, the Board could only overturn the appeal if it was contrary to the law or constitutes an abuse of discretion. The County Board unanimously affirmed that decision.

But if the County Board members wanted to provide the homeowners relief, they could have. According to the Maywood Design Guidelines, “the HALRB strongly supports replacing metal roofs with the same materials.” If they wanted to say it was required, they could have used the word required, but they did not. In fact, the HALRB asked the homeowners to provide an estimate for the cost of asphalt shingles as part of the application process. Therefore, the HALRB clearly had the discretion to allow the asphalt shingles but chose not to. Their exercise of that discretion was open to the County Board’s review.

Ultimately, the County Board had a simple question before it: is the HALRB’s decision to require homeowners to spend five times as much for roofing material reasonable in light of the historic district requirements? The Board unanimously chose to say that imposing such a cost was a reasonable decision.

The Board did so while trying to sound sympathetic. Board Chair Katie Cristol called it a “cautionary tale.” Vice Chair Christian Dorsey said, “I think we can figure out a way to do better.”

When it comes to driving up costs of construction through zoning rules in the county on one hand, and then simultaneously expressing concerns about the rising housing costs that result from those rules, this result is a perfect example of the Arlington way.

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