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ArlingtonAnother historic-preservation battle on horizon?

Another historic-preservation battle on horizon?

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The historic-preservation advocate who launched a community-driven, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, effort to save the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard, is on a new quest.

Tom Dickinson has filed paperwork with county officials seeking historic-district status for an East Falls Church home, despite the likelihood that the current property owner aims to raze the home and redevelop the 0.29-acre parcel.

“This house and property is another extremely rare, even unique, historically significant site in Arlington,” Dickinson wrote in paperwork filed to start the historic-designation machinery in process. “It demands preservation not just because of its age and almost immaculate condition, its truly unique (in Arlington) style and architecture, but also because of the people who owned and lived in this property and its prominent location on Washington Boulevard.”

County officials on July 2 confirmed the filing of the paperwork, which sets the process in motion.

The Victorian-style home, which was used until recently as a bed-and-breakfast, dates to the late 1800s, and is shaded by a more-than-century-year-old European horse chestnut tree that has drawn the Arlington Tree Action Group into the fray. Such trees can sometimes survive for up to three centuries.

The problem for Dickinson and other preservation advocates? 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.

That might set up a repeat of the battle over the Rouse estate (known to some as the Febrey-Lothrop property) that played out in late 2020 and early 2021.

Dickinson in the spring of 2020 filed paperwork seeking historic designation for the Rouse parcel, but efforts by preservation boosters and the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (which unanimously voted to support historic designation) were fought tooth and nail by lawyers for the trust that owned the Rouse property.

County Board members, who seemed caught between a desire not to run afoul of those lawyers but also to avoid alienating preservationists, stalled for time, providing the Rouse trust enough breathing space to secure demolition permits and, this spring, raze the century-old manor home and outbuildings to the ground.

Throughout that contentious process, County Board members were advised by County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac that imposing preservation requirements on a parcel against the will of its owner likely would leave the county government on the losing end of any inevitable lawsuit. (MacIsaac no longer
is county attorney; he recently took a post with Virginia Railway Express.)

Unlike listings on the National Register of Historic Places or Virginia Landmarks Register, which largely are symbolic in nature, being placed in a local historic district in Arlington gives county officials, through the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB), power to regulate exterior changes to properties and to slow, though not ultimately stop, demolition of such properties.

Currently, a total of 13 individual houses are counted as historic districts in Arlington, ranging in provenance from 1760 to 1931.

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.

In the case of the Rouse estate, HALRB members and historic-preservation staffers initially reacted relatively slowly to Dickinson’s filing, then moved into hyperdrive once it became clear the trust was serious in its plans for demolition. But the HALRB’s eventual recommendation to preserve the main house and a portion of the 9-acre site proved no match for the aggressive efforts of the trust’s attorneys to remind county leaders (bluntly and frequently) of the potential consequences of infringing on property rights, which are largely sacrosanct in Virginia.

The HALRB next meets on July 21.

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