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County Races Against Itself to Preserve 19th Century Dominion Hills Estate

Arlington County is in a race against its own bureaucracy to preserve the Febrey-Lothrop House, an estate that has sat in one form or another at 6407 Wilson Blvd since before the Civil War.

The County is rushing through the local historic designation process for the the mid-19th century property. It voted on Tuesday to advertise hearings on the potential historic value of the property in April.

The process is accelerated by the owner’s applications in December and last month for permits to demolish the buildings on the property, and an apparent effort to front-run any historic designation. The 9+ acre estate is owned by a trust established by sportsman Randy Rouse, who passed away in 2017.

The permit is administrative — meaning outside of the need for County Board approval — and was approved. Cynthia Liccese-Torres, coordinator for Arlington County’s historic preservation program, said the demolition permit will be not actually be issued until approval of an associated land disturbing activity permit.

Parallel to this administrative approval, an application filed last year by an Arlington resident to give the estate a local historic designation was reviewed by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) in November. The HALRB found that the home met eight of 11 criteria for the designation and recommended that the structure of the home and the surrounding property be designated as a local historic district overlay.

The property owners — who seek to demolish the building and sell the property for redevelopment — have repeatedly objected to this designation. Staff noted that despite having been in contact with the owners, they had not been given access to the property to research it, which has hamstrung efforts to make a more thorough report.

Meanwhile, in mid-January, workmen at the house started to demolish the roof until the County issued a stop work order.

“Staff made numerous good faith attempts to access property, [but] staff has still not been able to gain owner’s consent for time and date to view property,” said Richard Woodruff, chair of the Arlington Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board. “These issues taken by owners gave cause to believe that the house is at substantial risk of being damaged or destroyed.”

Woodruff said there is plenty of information on the property — even without an first-hand inspection — that says there is likely historic significance that could be lost if the area is demolished and redeveloped by-right.

“It was an upper middle class 19th century farm owned by prominent families,” Woodruff said. “We know Native Americans hunted on the hill and Civil War soldiers on both sides of war camped there. That land has not been disturbed and may contain artifacts, even pre-Columbian artifacts.”

Additionally, Woodruff noted the main house contains portions of the original 1855 structure, and key figures like Howard Hughes lived and stayed at the home in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Anyone who has driven by property knows it represents uniquely pastoral image of Arlington,” Woodruff said. “What is there, known and unknown, could be lost forever. We know owners want to sell, but there are no immediate buyers. It would be premature and a complete disaster for these buildings to come down before any of that is known. If you agree this property is worthy of protection for future generations of Arlingtonians, if you believe some or all of it should be protected, then please figure out how to do it and don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Tom Colucci, from the law firm Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh P.C., spoke on behalf of the owners and reiterated earlier objections to the historic classification.

“We request that the Board stop this runaway freight train to nowhere,” Colucci said. “What has happened is this was initiated by one individual who had no economic or other interest in the property and staff took the ball and ran with it. There have been a lot of things rushed with this because the owner has a desire to demolish these structures. These buildings are not in good condition, some are not in safe condition, and there are overriding policy decisions that have not been considered. Does the Board want to put itself in a position where it tries to thwart an otherwise legal act of a property owner by using this process?”

Colucci said the historic overlay would significantly devalue the property and would cause concern among potential buyers. Colucci also noted that the property has an R-6 zoning — single family homes — and the owners are currently only interested in redeveloping it within that zoning.

“This act would almost be a de facto taking,” Colucci said. “When you’re talking about designating not only the structures, but a swath of the property that designates almost 80% of the property without any compensation, that is a de facto taking. If the public wants to preserve this property, the County has the right of eminent domain. They can take the property if they like, or buy the property, and use it for whatever purpose is deemed appropriate. But this is extremely unfair to the landowner and is impinging on the rights of the land owner.”

What had been a two-way battle of historic preservation against developers seeking to replace it with single family homes exploded as a third faction, advocates for affordable housing, said in the public comments that either outcome would be a waste of space.

“If [the property were] demolished, it would become detached single family homes,” said Jane Green, a housing advocate who pens an ARLnow opinion column. “Preserving the property simply as open space is no better. It does not need to be a park, it is just down the street from Upton Hill Regional Park. R-6 zoning is a political choice, not an inevitability.”

Green said the county should work towards rezoning the property to allow garden apartments or row houses, putting lower cost housing opportunities into one of Arlington’s more desirable school zones.

Michelle Winters, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, also encouraged the county to take more action to ensure affordable housing be built on the expansive site, which is perhaps the last privately-owned residential property of its kind and size in the county.

“I’m not arguing against historic preservation — however, I do want to strongly encourage County Board to ensure that, regardless of direction of historic district, [the property] should be used to advance housing affordability and racial equitability,” Winters said.  “I’m recommending taking two actions: the county should prioritize development of a new land use designation that better reflects affordable housing land use goals and facilitate purchase by community land trust to create and maintain long term affordability.”

Others noted that historic designations have been used in the past to stop the development of multifamily housing, sometimes with undertones of racism and classism, despite dubious historical value of the property in question.

“The reckless preservationism on display here sacrifices Arlington’s future on an altar to memory of the past,” said Josiah Stevenson.

Staff, however, said the discussion of affordable housing on the site was outside of the scope of the current discussion on the historic designation.

“We can still designate an affordable housing use on a historic site down the road, not being discussed tonight” said County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac.

“Both uses can co-exist,” Liccese-Torres agreed. “Despite the size, creating local district overlay does not freeze a thing in a moment in time.”

The County Board found the prospect of affordable housing down the road intriguing, but said reviewing the historic designation of the site say the more immediate concern.

“It’s encouraging to hear community is thinking ahead,” said County Board member Takis Karantonis, “but what we are discussing today is historic merit.”

The County Board unanimously agreed to go forward with the local historic designation process, sending the designation to the Planning Commission on April 5 and back to the County Board for final approval on April 17. It’s still unclear, however, if the Febrey-Lothrop House will survive that long.

“I think a request to advertise is a willingness to hear more,” County Board member Katie Cristol said. “I think this clearly throws some deeply competing values into focus in our community and I would appreciate a chance to give our historic preservation staff a chance to dig in a little more.”

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