The Arlington Historical Society is beginning to get proactive in its efforts to preserve the county’s limited remaining stock of historic properties.
“Arlington’s government, residents and businesses could do more to preserve properties that represent either notable personages, events or architectural styles,” the organization said in a letter distributed to area homeowners, real-estate agents and home-builders.
“We believe the best way to preserve more properties that reflect Arlington’s heritage is through education and negotiations that honor the interests of all parties,” the organization noted.
How much buy-in the organization will get remains unclear. Virginia – whether the state government is in the hands of Democrats or Republicans – remains a heavily property-rights-oriented state, with only limited powers to force historic preservation on unwilling property owners.
A recent effort to do so, with the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard, failed in the spring of 2021, in part because Arlington government leaders believed they would lose a court challenge against the property owner.
The Rouse property (also known as the Febrey-Lothrop estate) and the Memory House (on Washington Boulevard) were two of the most notable properties that disappeared to history in recent years. But many more also have been goners, with Arlington’s cost of land making it more likely that developers tear down older structures and start anew.
The Arlington government has only limited powers to protect properties, and as the Rouse case showed, leaders are hesitant to push things too far with property owners.
Only properties that are formally designated as local historic sites (or are part of local historic districts) have a semblance of protection; being included on the National Register of Historic Places and its Virginia counterpart provides only honorifics, not protections.
Efforts by local legislators to provide slightly more teeth to Virginia’s historic-preservation regulations did not make it through the 2022 General Assembly session, although they will be reconsidered again next year.
Over the past few months, the Arlington Historical Society has been querying its members on whether the organization, founded in 1956, should take a more proactive stance on preservation issues. The recent letter, which was forwarded to local media, suggests the body is at least tiptoeing toward a more interactive approach to preservation issues.
But only up to a point.
“The society cannot offer official advice as to whether a given property is ‘historic,’” its missive noted, but “it could assist in explorations of alternatives to demolition – finding a historically minded buyer, or an architect who could design a partial renovation.”