Despite Missing Middle ordinance, this two-unit project has to get County Board approval

(Updated at 12:35 p.m.) Even in the era of Missing Middle, some duplex projects in Arlington have to go to the Arlington County Board for approval.

A proposal to build two side-by-side homes for sale at 1129 N. Utah Street, a few blocks from the Ballston Metro station and Washington-Liberty High School, is one such project.

Although the 2-story, single-family home set for demolition is in a “townhouse district,” only a single-family home can be built by right. McLean-based developer BeaconCrest Homes must go through the county’s longer, more intensive review process — typically reserved for larger-scale projects — to obtain approval for its proposed semi-detached home. It will have two 4-bedroom, 4.5-bath homes, each 2,600 square feet, with private outdoor spaces and 2-car garages.

“Given the property’s location and immediate surrounding uses, we felt it deserved to be more than a single dwelling and chose to pursue the 2-unit, semi-detached route,” said BeaconCrest representative Derek Huetinck. “Wrapping up, we continue to believe that the project before the Planning Commission is a better fit for the neighborhood, and more closely aligned with the county’s housing needs than the by-right option.”

It is a quirk that may come down to how the neighborhood and county zoning codes developed.

The brick home at 1129 N. Utah Street was built in 1948. While the first mention of “townhouse dwelling districts” appears to be Arlington’s 1969 Zoning Ordinance, it was not until the 2002 ordinance that the designation “R15-30T” — the type of townhouse dwelling district this home finds itself in — entered the code.

The 2002 code says this new district responds to the need for more transit-oriented development. Still, the code requires site plan approval by the County Board for 2-unit semi-detached homes and 3-unit townhouses, meaning these was never a by-right option, though the district’s name suggests a preference for this housing.

Today, several townhouses, along with some 3-story apartment buildings, line N. Utah Street, except for the “hold out” property in question, as Planning Commissioner Daniel Weir described it last week.

Townhouses on N. Utah Street (via Google Maps)

Now that property owners can build 2-6 unit homes by right in what were once single-family-home-only districts, the added hoops in a townhouse district — unchanged by the Missing Middle ordinance — prompted staff and the Planning Commission to give the N. Utah Street project an abridged process, with targeted outreach to immediate neighbors and more informal meetings.

The developer worked with neighbors who had critiques regarding the façade, which BeaconCrest worked to address, per a county report. Only one person, the president of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association, expressed concerns about the shortened process.

Last week, Planning Commissioner Jim Lantelme lobbied for zoning code revisions to streamline this process even more.

“The process really is not the way to go for small projects. It just unnecessarily adds a lot of expense for both delay and money,” he said, asking county staff what the commission and county can do to make this process more efficient.

He recommended that the Planning Commission Chair and Vice-Chair voice support for tasking staff with streamlining the process for these districts. That discussion should take place, he said, during an upcoming work session when the Board, Planning Commissioners and the county’s planning division meet to discuss priorities for this year.

“It’s time,” he said. “I mean, we need housing.”

County planner Matt Pfeiffer said it is possible that denser residential districts as a whole will be revisited at as part of a planned Multifamily Reinvestment Study, “when and if that comes forward.”

“That’s something that we can take back and think about some more,” he said.

Addressing BeaconCrest, Lantelme said: “I’m glad you’re doing this but you shouldn’t have had to go through this. The expense just is not worth what you could if if you built the same thing in a [low-density] district… by right. And that just doesn’t make any sense to me.”