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Why A Local Duplex Renovation Requires Planning Commission and County Board Approvals

The Garrison residence at 523 24th Street S. (courtesy of Les Garrison)

(Updated at 6:15 p.m.) Seven years ago, Les Garrison bought a two-family home in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood so that his son’s family could live in one half and the other could be rented out.

He had always intended to renovate the home near Crystal City, which consists of two apartments, each with two bedrooms and one bathroom. He also wants to modernize it, making it accessible to people with disabilities and adding solar panels.

Garrison tells ARLnow he wants to provide an affordable housing option to his son, a county employee, and people like his other tenants — two women over 60, a barista and a graduate student.

“My son… he can’t afford to live in this neighborhood, unless we have revenue coming in from the house,” Garrison said. “That’s what this is about: allowing him to stay in Arlington.”

He expected to get approvals in 2017 and start construction in 2018. Instead, his plan to enlarge and modernize the house will require approvals from the Planning Commission and the County Board as part of a more complex county permitting track that even features a county webpage devoted to the project.

The Garrison’s Site Plan Review process, which involves more scrutiny and more revisions to attain the green light to start construction than an administrative approval typical for single-family homes in Arlington, has also put him out nearly $100,000 in permitting fees, and payments to lawyers, architects and arborists.

Although dates have not yet been set for County Board approval, the Garrison residence would be the second duplex project to go before the board this year. Members approved construction at a Ballston duplex at 1201 N. Vernon Street in May. Meanwhile, from January through June, the county has administratively approved construction of 66 single-family detached homes and construction started on 27 similarly-approved townhouses.

This disparity has drawn criticism from some members of the Planning Commission, who are the last to provide input before sending a project to the County Board for a virtual rubber stamp, as well as housing advocates, who say this reflects a “broken” zoning code.

County staff, meanwhile, say that changes Garrison is proposing require community input. But, they said relief for duplex homeowners in similar situations could come in the future, if zoning standards are changed for lower-density multifamily housing types as part of the in-progress Missing Middle Housing Study.

That might put homeowner renovations of duplexes that don’t confirm to current zoning on the same regulatory playing field as the tear-downs that have become commonplace across the county.

“Right now, a builder can put up a 3,000 square foot house and sell it. It’s pretty much that simple — no public meetings, no expensive lawyers, no neighborhoods weighing in on, I don’t know, whether your driveway pavers should be beige or gray,” said Daniel Weir, who is the vice-chair of the Planning Commission. “Split that exact same building in half — same amount of driveway, same amount of parking, same lot lines — try and build literally almost the exact same building, and all of a sudden everyone in the county gets to have a say.”

Two development tracks

Arlington is divided up into zoning districts based on whether the properties are public, residential, commercial, industrial or mixed-use, county staff explain. All zoning districts permit certain uses of the property, meaning that property owners can develop what they own “by-right” if their projects conform to the zoning standards for the district, which govern density, size, height, width, lot coverage and placement.

Site Plan Review kicks in when proposed modifications could result in a different building type, increased density, smaller lot sizes, taller buildings or structures placed closer to property boundaries, staff said. This is where Garrison finds himself.

“It is important for the community to have the ability to review these [changes] prior to County Board approval,” county staff tell ARLnow.

Garrison’s 86-year-old, grandfathered duplex is in a neighborhood with some two-family homes, but many single-family ones as well. Further, his duplex, built in 1935, sits on a lot that is about 1,000 square feet smaller and six feet narrower than what the zoning district says is allowed for a duplex.

That he plans to expand a duplex on a lot that is smaller than it is supposed to be merits a Site Plan review, according to staff.

“The result of this project would be a different dwelling type and lot size and placement than typical for the neighborhood, which is something that can be reviewed by the [Site Plan Review Committee], Planning Commission, and ultimately the County Board to ensure that it fits harmoniously within the neighborhood,” staff said.

‘Just unlucky’ 

Garrison’s lawyer, Barnes Lawson, says that Garrison’s changes to his legally non-conforming property ought to be governed by “zoning amendment light.” Instead of going through a long process to modify the code, the county could administratively fix an ordinance retroactively applied to a grandfathered property.

But, Lawson said, “Les is just unlucky.”

For Garrison, the site plan review process requires a frustrating number of revisions.

“Time after time, we’ve been through these issues and there’s always some additional aspect to the issue that we thought we had covered to their satisfaction,” Garrison said. “That’s representative to the fact that they have too much on their plate, and they don’t have time to focus on these little projects.”

He said he’s had to pay out $25,000 in permitting fees and over $75,000 for a civil engineer, an arborist, an architect, a lawyer, and a couple other specialists.

“I don’t even have a clue whether I’d be able to do this,” he said. “The county staff folks are definitely overworked. They’re doing their best based on the guidance they got, in my opinion. Amazon and the other major things pull them away from stuff like this.”

‘This project should not be a site plan’

Site plans were not always this complex, Lawson said.

“When my dad did site plans, there was one page of conditions — now it’s 60,” he said. “It’s a cumbersome process more suited to larger deals.”

Over the years, the site plan review process has become more sophisticated, county staff said.

“Planners and members of the various review groups, including the Site Plan Review Committee, have refined the process over the years based on numerous elements including interest for sustainable and accessible design, challenges associated with increased in-fill development, and a need to address affordable housing,” they said.

But these questions are not asked of by-right single-family home developments, and unfairly disadvantage the duplexes that have to go through site plan review based on particularities in the zoning code, according to some Site Plan Review Committee meeting-watchers.

When the N. Vernon Street duplex reached the Planning Commission, some commissioners said the site plan track was the wrong one for the project.

According to meeting minutes, “Commissioner [Stephen] Hughes opined that this project should not be a site plan-required development,” because a by-right approval “would have greatly reduced the cost” of the development and the rental price of the units.

Per the minutes, Hughes said something along the lines of, “we should not expect a duplex to have to go through the same process as a 400-unit multifamily development.”

Two other commissioners also voiced their agreement with Hughes, with Commissioner Elizabeth Gearin saying that this issue should be addressed by a Zoning Ordinance Amendment that would make the development by-right.

She said the Planning Commission has the opportunity “to elevate this issue,” according to the minutes.

And the same advocates raised a similar drum beat for the Garrison residence duplex renovation project last month.

In response, the county said that the processes and standards could change for duplexes and triplexes as it moves through the Missing Middle Housing Study. This study will evaluate what new housing types, such as duplexes, could be allowed in exclusive single-family areas, and what kind of zoning standards should govern each type.

This study could result in changes to the approval process, staff said.

“We will also consider what the approval process should be for these new housing types,” they said. “At the end of the MMHS process, there could be new development standards and a streamlined approval process for housing types that are either not currently allowed or not prevalent in Arlington. However, much work and community review during the MMHS is necessary to determine those details.”

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