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ArlingtonCounty leaders called on to change lot-coverage loophole

County leaders called on to change lot-coverage loophole

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Arlington County Board members say they will take under advisement concerns that a quirk – critics call it a loophole – in the local zoning ordinance encourages developers to clear-cut certain lots to maximize the footprint of new construction out of proportion to surrounding homes.

The matter was raised by activist Anne Bodine at the Oct. 16 County Board meeting. She pressed board members to amend the county’s zoning ordinance, pointing to several instances where developers had purchased lots and proceeded to “strip every living thing” from them.

Every residential zoning district in Arlington – R-5, R-6, R-10, etc. – imposes limits on the percentage of a lot that can be covered by structures, with the percentages declining as zoning districts increase in average size. In R-5 districts, where homes sit on lots typically about 5,000 square feet, the maximum lot coverage is 53 percent; in R-20 districts, where the average lot size is four times as large, the lot coverage is capped at 33 percent.

The zoning quirk comes into play when there is a lot that is significantly larger than its neighborhood’s zoning, providing developers the ability to cover more of the lot with a house and outbuildings than would have been the case had the lot been located in an area zoned for larger lots.

Bodine pointed to a lot on North Jackson Street, which at 19,000 square feet is about three times the size of the typical lot in its R-6-zoned neighborhood. Because of the county zoning rules, a developer was able to plant structures on 9,200 square feet of that site; had the same lot been located in an R-20 zone with other parcels of like size, lot coverage would have been limited to about 6,300 square feet of the parcel.

The disparity has led to “builders scouring property records and pouncing on oversized lots within each zone, where they are destroying every tree and plant,” Bodine said in a letter to the editor.

At the Oct. 16 County Board meeting, board chair Matt deFerranti initially assumed the county government’s fallback position in such cases – state law ties Arlington’s hands – although he said it was worth scrunity.

“I want to take another look,” he told Bodine.

One of his board colleagues staked out a more aggressive stance.

“We actually have authority on lot coverage,” Takis Karantonis said. “What Ms. Bodine brings forward is worth thinking about – it’s legitimate . . . to comb it with a finer comb.”

Will board members move forward with considering a change to what some activists are now terming the “North Jackson Street loophole”? Any change to zoning rules that limits the ability to develop puts the county government in a precarious position, local officials long have contended.

“This is not something we can do lightly and easily,” County Board member Libby Garvey said.

As for clear-cutting of lots, county officials pointed fingers at Richmond.
“Virginia law prohibits [in many cases] our ability to prevent, on private property, individuals from cutting down trees on their private property,” de Ferranti said.

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