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Wednesday, May 25, 2022
ArlingtonAnother historic-preservation battle on horizon

Another historic-preservation battle on horizon

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The Arlington County government’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) has started the ball rolling on a process that could again put the County Board in the middle of crossfire between preservation advocates on one side and a property owner eager to demolish an existing structure on the other.

Which will leave some asking: Haven’t we recently been down this road before?

HALRB members on Aug. 18 determined that the “Memory House” – a late-Victoria-era property in East Falls Church that in recent years had served as a bed-and breakfast before being sold to a developer earlier this year – met a number of criteria to be declared a standalone local-historic district.

It is “pretty clear” the property has enough historic provenance to meet the guidelines, HALRB board member Joan Lawrence said at the meeting.
“It would be extremely sad” if the 3,200-square-foot structure, which dates to the tail end of the 19th century, was razed for redevelopment, said Lawrence. “I just get angry at developers who don’t see the value in historic preservation.”

The current property owner, a Manassas-based investment firm that purchased the site for about $1.09 million in February, according to county-government records, has not indicated its willingness to have the parcel designated a local historic district. Under the parcel’s existing zoning, the developer has the ability to put two homes on the 0.92-acre site without needing any special permission from the county government.

The HALRB’s Aug. 18 vote did not declare the Memory House as historic, but it started the county-staff process of evaluating the application. As the developer already has applied for permits that would enable demolition, it could devolve into a game of beat-the-clock – with the developer likely able to demolish the structure before the historic-district process runs its course.

And as HALRB members were reminded earlier this year, they do not have the final say in the matter, and their good intentions may not carry the day, particularly when a property owner is against historic-status designation.

County Board members have the final say, and in a contentious showdown earlier this year, tacitly sided with the owner of another venerable property – the circa-1905 Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard – despite HALRB members’ determining the structure should become an historic district.

(In each case, it was historic-preservation advocate Tom Dickinson who filed the paperwork seeking to designate the parcels at historic districts.)

HALRB chairman Richard Woodruff acknowledged that the desires of preservationists might not carry the day, saying the Memory House situation was “very similar” to that of the Rouse estate (also known to preservationists as the Febrey-Lothrop property).

“We’re facing the same situation,” Woodruff said. “We have been down this road before.”

In the Rouse case, the trust that owned the property relied on Virginia’s strong private-property rights in convincing County Board members not to act in designating the property historic before they gained the necessary paperwork to bulldoze it into oblivion.

During that contretemps, the county attorney advised County Board members that the local government was likely to lose in court if it tried to impose historic status against the will of a property owner. In the end, County Board members did not have the stomach for the fight, slow-walking the decision-making process to give the Rouse trust time to secure the needed paperwork and lay waste to the main house and outbuildings.

Even with that precedent looming large, Woodruff said it wasn’t the place of HALRB members to attempt to divine what might happen down the road. Rather, he said, they should make their own determination as dictated by the historic-preservation ordinance.

As with the Rouse matter, where HALRB members first took their time considering the matter and moved into warp speed when it became clear they were in a race against the clock, the body also may have missed an opportunity to gain the advantage in the Memory House case. Dickinson had filed paperwork on the matter in early July, but the matter was not taken up at the July 21 HALRB meeting, even though Dickinson’s efforts had been reported on in the media and thus were not exactly a big secret.

The HALRB’s Aug. 18 request to move forward with the evaluation process was forwarded up the county-government authority chain. An update on where the matter stands is expected at the body’s September meeting.

Several HALRB members, citing the likelihood of a footrace between preservationists and the property owner, asked that county officials put the Memory House at the top of the historic-preservation staff’s to-do list. That would jump it ahead of four other properties already in the queue.

Despite its action in the Rouse case, it is rare for the HALRB to move forward on an historic-district proposal when the property owner is adamantly opposed. Several years ago, the body declined to support the preservation of Arlington Presbyterian Church on Columbia Pike after the congregation voiced its opposition to saving the building, which was roughly as old as the Rouse estate. It was razed to make way for apartments.

The last time the county government approved a local historic district over the objections of a property owner came in the 1990s.

If the matter gets to the County Board, it would be difficult to see how the legal advice board members receive would be any different from the Rouse case – even though the county attorney throughout the course of that battle, Stephen MacIsaac, has since moved on to work for Virginia Railway Express.

But even if the property were declared historic by the County Board – and their action survived a court challenge – being declared historic potentially would only delay, not derail, efforts to tear it down.

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