It’s been razed to oblivion, but last year’s battle of the fate of the Rouse estate is in front of the General Assembly in the form of a new historic-preservation measure.
Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) has introduced legislation that, if enacted, could give preservationists more of a fighting chance to retain properties they deem worth saving.
Hope’s bill makes several changes to the state’s historic-preservation laws, most notably prohibiting a local government from permitting the razing of a proposed historic property until 30 days after a final decision on the matter has been made.
As was found during the 2020-21 battle over the future of the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard, current law sets up something of a footrace between preservationists seeking to declare a property historic and the property owner seeking to redevelop it.
In the case of the Rouse property (also known as the Febrey-Lothrop estate), the property owner won, receiving a permit to bulldoze the century-plus-year-old main house and outbuildings before Arlington County Board members acted on the request of a local resident to confer historic status on some or all of the parcel.
Preservationists and some neutral observers said the Rouse battle was a case of County Board members and top county-government staff wanting to allow the property to be demolished and redeveloped but without taking the heat of doing so.
To accomplish the task, critics said, the County Board slow-walked its consideration of the historic-preservation application, giving the property owner enough time to obtain the necessary permits to tear down the home.
The entire episode proved “really a needless waste” and showed “a complete lack of leadership,” sighed Historical Affairs & Landmark Review Board (HALRB) chairman Richard Woodruff after the County Board voted 5-0 in April 2021 to deny historic status for a property that was already partially demolished.
Local historic-preservation advocate Tom Dickinson a year before had filed paperwork to preserve at least some of the site. His request gathered dust in a government file before HALRB members in late 2020 noticed that the estate was about to be demolished, and went from seeming disinterest to fast-tracking the measure and recommending the parcel receive the status of a local historic district.
It was, in the end, too little, too late, as County Board members seemed cowed by attorneys for the property owner (a trust formed by the late Randy Rouse) who worked aggressively to torpedo any preservation status. Those attorneys said their responsibility was to maximize the value of the parcel in order to support philanthropic efforts of the trust, and that a preservation overlay would cause problems with the planned sale of the property.
(Once the parcel was leveled, it was sold off for residential development.)
The HALRB’s actions in the Rouse matter were unusual; it historically has been rare for the body to move forward on an historic-district proposal when the property owner is adamantly opposed.
Several years ago, the body declined to support a public request for 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.
Later in 2021, Dickinson proposed historic status for a Victorian-era home on Washington Boulevard in East Falls Church, but that proposal, too, fell on deaf ears at the top of the county government. The circa-1880s home fell to the wrecking ball.
Dickinson told the Sun Gazette he was appreciative the legislature was taking a look at the matter.
“Del. Hope has been very helpful in bringing this to the level of a proposed bill in the legislature, for which we are very grateful,” he said. “The common-sense solution to eliminate the possibility of a demolition permit being approved prior to completion of the local-historic-district process will serve to balance rights of the community with those of a developer.”
Hope’s bill – HB 1210 – also would permit a wider array of entities to appeal a governing body’s decision on historic status to the Circuit Court in that locality, including any local resident who spoke during public hearings on the matter.
Current law allows localities themselves to decide who can appeal decisions on historic status. During the battle over the Rouse estate, local activist John Reeder filed suit to contest the board’s decision on historic designation, but his effort was rejected by a judge because he did not have legal standing.
Amending the rules on who has the right to sue would bring fairness to the process, Dickinson said.
“We’re only trying to level the playing field here, so that any citizen will have equal access to the courts, as any developer currently has,” he said.
Currently, a total of 13 individual houses are counted as historic districts in Arlington, ranging in provenance from 1760 to 1931. Homeowners in more broad-based historic districts (such as Maywood) also have to adhere to design guidelines and receive approval from staff or the HALRB to make certain changes to the exterior of their properties.
Historic designation, alone, does not prohibit the owner from tearing down a property, although it does put some procedural hurdles in the way.
Local historic districts are distinct from inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks Register, which are honorific in nature and provide no protections to the properties.