At the very end of a two-hour Feb. 23 hearing on the proposed historic designation of the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard between North McKinley Road and North Madison Street, Arlington County Board member Takis Karantonis mused aloud what the next step in this saga might be.
Cynics might contend the next step could well end up being the sound of bulldozers – and sooner rather than later.
The trust that owns the 9-acre estate gave no quarter to preservationists or affordable-housing advocates at the meeting, affirming its plan to tear down the main house and outbuildings so the property can be prepped for sale and, most likely, redevelopment as single-family homes.
And the legal counsel for the trust that controls the parcel made clear that if County Board members overstep their authority in an effort to intervene, there will be consequences.
“Does the board want to put itself in the position where it tries to thwart an otherwise legal act by a property owner?” attorney Thomas Colluci asked.
Should the county government desire to control future use of the parcel, Colluci said, it needs to pull out its checkbook.
“If the public wants to preserve this property, or make it into a park or a school, the county certainly has the right of eminent domain,” he said, leaving unsaid that such a move would put the county government on the hook for, potentially, tens of millions of dollars in compensation.
The Feb. 23 public hearing laid the groundwork for formal hearings on the historic designation in April. But county preservation staff acknowledged that a demolition permit for the main house has been approved, and all that stands between the property owner and a pile of rubble is a land-disturbing-activity permit, which would enable demolition to take place.
“It is a race,” said Tom Dickinson, a local resident who last year nominated the parcel for historic status, and who pressed the County Board to take up the matter.
“Speed of process is imperative,” said Dickinson.
The county’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) in January determined that the property met criteria become a local historic district, sending the measure on to the County Board. The Feb. 23 hearing was simply to advertise hearings on the matter before the Planning Commission on April 5 and the County Board on April 17.
The County Board could have set hearings earlier, but opted not to. “There’s a process that we follow, and we are following that process,” board member Libby Garvey said.
Colucci urged County Board members to go further and “stop this runaway freight train” by voting to end the process once and for all. But that may not have been necessary: Preservationists fear that, from the start, county officials have been signaling to the Rouse trust that any preservation designation would be slow-walked until demolition permits were in hand.
The 9-acre estate 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.
The trust set up during Rouse’s lifetime provides support for his widow, as well as for philanthropic initiatives. The trustees are obligated to get the maximum value for the property they can, said Colucci, one of the heavy-hitters of local land-use law.
The trust has not let county officials on the property to conduct a preservation survey, but Colucci intimated they likely would come away disappointed.
“The structures are not in good condition,” he said. “Some of them are in unsafe condition.”
The HALRB has proposed including about 80 percent of the parcel in an historic district, with lots fronting North Madison Street being left off. At the same time, advocates for affordable housing are pressing for the parcel to be rezoned for multi-family housing, a process County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac said could take a year or more to accomplish.
(Those who see Arlington policy-making as kabuki theater where nothing is quite what it seems are having a field day interpreting the machinations of this matter. They note that County Board members are managing to pit preservationists against housing activists; pit housing activists against some of those who live in neighborhoods surrounding the estate; and casting the property owner as the bad guy – the Snidely Whiplash, if you will – in the drama. All as the board’s perhaps desired end result, demolition of the buildings, gets closer.)
In theory, County Board members could place the parcel into its own historic district even after the structures on it fall to the wrecking ball. But unless the county government wants to pay for the property, or find someone who will, there’s not much that can be done to prevent its ultimate redevelopment.
Given the bad blood that has developed, asking everybody to take a breath and think things through over the next two months may be too much to expect. But County Board members asked for all sides to give it a shot.
“There could be some ways to come up with a win-win-win,” Garvey said. “We really might come up with something.”
“It can be a tremendous opportunity,” Karantonis added.
PHOTO: This photo, from the submission made by Tom Dickinson to the Arlington Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board, shows the main home on the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard.