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Saturday, December 4, 2021
ArlingtonOpinionLetter: Fixing zoning loophole would be a win for community

Letter: Fixing zoning loophole would be a win for community

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Editor: We could save a lot of trees in Arlington if our county government would just close a zoning loophole.

Arlington’s zoning code (ZOCO) currently requires owners of residential property to cap the percentage of their lot that gets covered during new construction. There is also a separate cap on the percentage of their lot that may be covered by the main building (usually the home).

The rules recognize that larger lots can more easily accommodate new homes, so the percentages for both the lot and main building coverages shrink as the lot size increases. For example, 53-percent lot coverage is the maximum allowed in R-5 (average size 5,000 square feet), but only 33 percent is allowed in R-20 (average size 20,000 square feet).

This implicit recognition of proportionality is reflected in this part of the ZOCO. However, it is thwarted in the lot-coverage guidelines that apply to oversized lots within zones. I recommend closing that loophole now.

The ZOCO also caps the “main building footprint square footage” in residential zones. This cap ensures homes are proportional for the neighborhood and that part of the lot preserves tree canopy and porous surface.

But the Gods of Zoning did not set parallel square footage caps for lot coverage like they did for percentages. This disparity – and the overheated market for super-homes – has builders scouring property records and pouncing on oversized lots within each zone, where they are destroying every tree and plant.

A 19,000-square-foot lot in the R-6 zone on North Jackson Street, at almost half an acre, is just the type of lot where you assume a builder would spare large trees during construction. That didn’t happen, though, because the very large coverage allowances for oversized lots basically guarantee clear-cutting. In this case, the builder is utilizing the maximum 48-percent coverage bestowed by R-6 zoning, and, unencumbered by caps on lot square footage, he is paving or building over 9,120 square feet – creating an impervious area with no trees that is twice the size of the average lot in the neighborhood.

We urgently need a new “line item” in the ZOCO for residential areas; i.e., “maximum lot coverage square footage” (sum of all buildings). I propose allowing for a maximum 20-percent oversized lot in each zone. In R-6 then, a builder could cover the respective lot percentages up to a maximum of 7,200 square feet. Any lot that is larger simply loses the excess bonus density that builders are now exploiting.

If we had applied even this generous formula to North Jackson Street, at the 48-percent coverage rate we would have reduced the building coverage by 5,600 square feet from 9,120. It most certainly would have saved trees and porous surfaces; it would have restored parity with the building footprint rules; and it probably would have helped contain the runaway land-price inflation in our neighborhoods. Win, win, win!!!

Close the “North Jackson Street loophole” now.

Anne Bodine, Arlington

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