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Monday, September 20, 2021
ArlingtonFalling short in court, preservationists look to legislature

Falling short in court, preservationists look to legislature

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Having failed in a Hail Mary court challenge to force preservation of the land surrounding the razed Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard, some activists are now considering taking their case to the legislature.

A Circuit Court judge on July 16 unceremoniously rejected a challenge to the Arlington County Board’s actions related to the property, saying the plaintiff – Arlington Green Party leader John Reeder – did not have legal standing to challenge the decision in court.

Judge Louise DiMatteo intimated that the public’s recourse, if it was unhappy with the County Board’s decision, was at the ballot box, not the courthouse.

County Board members in April had rejected a recommendation by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) that the property be blanketed in a local-historic designation. The vote came only after County Board members, wittingly or not (and they indeed to know exactly what they were doing), gave the owner of the property enough time to secure permits for demolition of the early-20th-century main house and outbuildings.

The court decision probably was inevitable, as Virginia law provides property owners extremely strong rights and also, in many cases, gives local governments strong powers to interpret and enforce their own rules and policies – as those who unsuccessfully sued to prevent the School Board’s renaming of Washington-Lee High School can attest.

While Reeder was unhappy with DiMatteo’s decision, he trained most of his fire on the local government.

“Our County Board genuflected to money and to developers,” he said in an e-mail to those who had supported the lawsuit. “County Board members just saw more development, more luxury houses and more rich people moving in as their goal. They care nothing about our past history, our culture and our unique history as a major area of the Civil War in the 1860s. They see no value of nearly 10 acres of open land with mature trees, shrubs and vegetation as a park open to all for recreation.”

Reeder suggested preservation advocates could continue to press their case, seeking to allow more public input on preservation decisions, when the General Assembly convenes in Richmond in 2022.

But the issue may become a local political football before that, as independent County Board candidate Audrey Clement appears to be making it a cornerstone of her longshot bid to unseat incumbent Democratic County Board member Takis Karantonis.

“If the public is unhappy at the cavalier manner in which [the] County Board disposed of a big piece of its Civil War heritage, and the heavy-handed way in which the Circuit Court extinguished its legal rights, then it can elect new leaders,” Clement said, echoing the legal ruling, in an e-mail to supporters. “I believe Arlington needs public servants who honor rather than disparage the rights of its citizens.”

(Also challenging Karantonis in November are independents Michael Cantwell and Adam Theo. Republicans did not field a candidate in the race.)

In late January, HALRB determined the 9-acre property met requirements for an historic district, sending the matter to the Planning Commission and County Board for a decision. That HALRB recommendation came over the strong objections of the property owner – a trust representing the family of the late Randy Rouse – which wanted nothing to do with preservation.

The application for historic designation had been filed in the spring of 2020 by Tom Dickinson, who is active in Arlington Historical Society and preservation circles.

The historic-district ordinance allows for such third-party applications, but it had been three decades since the Arlington government imposed an historic district over the objections of a property owner. And given the aggressive stance taken by the estate’s high-powered legal team, board members and the county attorney seemed disinclined to provoke a legal battle they believed they ultimately would lose.

And so, critics contend, County Board members stalled in an effort to evade responsibility for deciding one way or another.

Those critics seem to have a point.

County Board members could have held a public hearing on the HALRB’s recommendation in early March, prior to the Rouse estate’s receiving demolition permits from the local-government bureaucracy. But by the time the measure eventually got to the County Board dais in April, the buildings had been leveled and board members wrung their hands but said, essentially, that was that.

The Rouse parcel, which is likely to be sold off for development, is located at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North McKinley Road. It is what remains of a 26-acre tract purchased by sportsman Randy Rouse in the 1950s. Rouse owned it until his death at age 100 in 2017; his widow had been residing in the main house until recently.

While some use the Rouse name to denote the property, preservationists and the county government seem to prefer “Febrey-Lothrop,” which harks back to families that owned the land back into the 19th century.

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