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Tuesday, December 7, 2021
ArlingtonHistoric designation may be too little, too late

Historic designation may be too little, too late

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By the time the Arlington County Board takes a vote on putting the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard into a local-historic district, will the estate still be standing?

County Board members have slated a Feb. 23 public hearing not on the historic designation itself, but on placing the matter on the agenda for April and holding the requisite public hearing and voting then.

That could be all the time the property owners need to wrangle a demolition permit out of the Arlington government and level the property.

In late January, the county government’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) determined the 9-acre property met requirements for an historic district, sending the proposal to the Planning Commission and County Board for a decision. That vote came over the strong objections of the property owner – a trust representing the family of the late Randy Rouse – which wants nothing to do with preservation.

“The landowner is adamantly opposed to this route,” said Thomas Colucci, an attorney representing the estate, at the HALRB hearing. The trust’s plan is to sell the parcel off for development, much as other portions of Rouse’s estate earlier were.

The application for historic designation had been filed last spring 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 has been three decades since the Arlington government imposed an historic district over the objections of a property owner (in that case, it was the Buckingham Apartments).  During the ongoing wrangling over the Rouse estate’s future, County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac has been advising County Board members in public that if the matter ends up in front of a judge, the Rouse trust is likely to prevail.

Ever since the unanimous Jan. 27 HALRB vote, top county leaders have been taking a leisurely pace in moving ahead – which some preservationists interpret as a sign the county government would like to see the circa-1907 main house and outbuildings torn down once the demolition permit is issued, so the County Board does not need to render a verdict.

On Feb. 16, County Manager Mark Schwartz formally recommended that the public hearings before the Planning Commission and County Board be held in April. 

There was no explanation provided by Schwartz why the measure couldn’t be acted upon in March. His recommendation did note that, so far, county preservation staff have not been allowed onto the property to conduct a survey that would assess the site’s provenance.

Theoretically, the Planning Commission could consider the matter at a regular meeting on either March 8 or 10, then the County Board could take it up later in the month. County Board members presumably could opt on that timeline, rather than the lengthier one recommended by the county manager, when voting on the matter on Feb. 23.

The parcel 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.)

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.

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

Historic designation, alone, does not prohibit the owner from tearing down a property, although it does put some procedural hurdles in the way. 

PHOTO: The Rouse estate sits on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. (Photo by Thomas Dickinson)

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