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FairfaxProposed lot-coverage changes find little Vienna consensus

Proposed lot-coverage changes find little Vienna consensus

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Proposals to loosen lot-coverage requirements and allow for more outdoor amenities in Vienna have the support of some residents and builders, but some Vienna Planning Commission members remain skeptical.

After more than two hours’ worth of staff presentations, public testimony and debate among commissioners on Nov. 10, the Planning Commission extended the hearing to Dec. 8.

At stake is a zoning-ordinance text amendment that could change lot-coverage rules that largely have been unchanged since 1956 and permit porch projections into front yards.

Before the pandemic struck, the Vienna Town Council asked town staff to examine options for expanding residents’ opportunities for outdoor amenities at their homes. Demand for such options increased during the pandemic, with many people making use of their properties in lieu of seeking entertainment in more crowded public settings.


Town code currently considers porches, enclosed or not, to be part of buildings and prohibits them from encroaching on required front, side or rear yards. Most houses built in the 1950s and ’60s were built right up to the front-yard setback line, thus prohibiting front porches, said Vienna Planning and Zoning Director Cindy Petkac.

Under a proposal being floated by town staff, front-yard porches would be allowed to encroach up to 8 feet past the setback line. The porches could be no taller than 14 feet from the average front-yard grade, must be open on all three sides, have overhangs that jutted out an additional 18 inches and have steps encroaching into the yard by the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code’s minimum distance.

Town staff surveyed the public on three possible lot-coverage changes:

• Option 1 would retain the town’s long-standing 25-percent lot-coverage limit for buildings, accessory structures, driveway, parking spaces, sports courts, patios and terraces. The town still would allow decks to cover no more than 5 percent of the total lot area.

• Option 2 would retain the above, but also allow up to 5 percent more of lots to be covered by outdoor-living areas such as single-story covered decks, patios and single-story porches incapable of being converted into interior living space.

• Option 3 would redefine coverage by buildings and outdoor-living/non-building improvements. Building coverage (defined as structures with roofs, such as houses, garages, sheds, covered porches and covered decks) would be capped at 22 percent, but outdoor-living/non-building improvements (such as driveways, uncovered patios, open decks and sports courts) could take up a maximum of 12 percent of the lots.

Option 1’s total maximum lot coverage is 30 percent, while Options 2 and 3 would allow up to 35 percent.

According to an opinion poll taken by the town this fall, which received 443 verified responses from Vienna residents, 62 percent of respondents opposed Option 1 while 66 percent supported Option 2 and 49 percent liked Option 3.

Town staff later came up with a few more possibilities.

• Option 4 resembles Option 3, but would classify all structures under building coverage and limit that to 22 percent, and put patios and driveways into a non-building/paved category with a maximum coverage of 13 percent. Driveways and parking areas would be allowed to cover no more than 30 percent of the front yard.

• Option 5 would keep the current rules, but include covered decks and screened-in porches in the 5-percent additional category with uncovered decks.

• Option 5B would be the same as Option 5, but allow screened-in porches and covered decks only 3 percent more coverage while keeping the 5-percent limit for uncovered decks.

Vienna has the most restrictive lot-coverage regulation of any Northern Virginia municipality, said Patricia Hanley, who represented five local builders at the hearing. The group supported all the options except No. 1 (the status quo) and most favored Options 3 and 4.

The lot-coverage rule is a significant factor in determining the value of properties, Hanley said.

“Let me be clear: This will not change our ability to build new homes, but rather provide opportunities for existing homes and let new homes add features without sacrificing other features,” she said.

Vienna resident Chris Walker preferred Options 2 and 5 and said the proposed changes were about giving homeowners choices and flexibility.

“Over-building these lots isn’t going to happen,” Walker said.

Adam Oliver, who lives on Upham Place, N.W., lamented he was unable to add some outdoor features to his home which was built in the 1970s.

“You shouldn’t punish existing residents by not allowing them to expand and utilize their space in the way they need to because you’re afraid of what the future is going to bring with additional builders down the pike,” he said.

Amit Mahajan, who lives in Vienna’s northeast quadrant, agreed.

“We’re not asking for a significant change, compared to other areas in Northern Virginia,” he said. “Really we’re looking for equality in terms of the lot coverage.”

But Planning Commission Chairman Stephen Kenney was unmoved by comparisons to other jurisdictions.

“We have our own identity and our own codes,” he said.

Planning Commission member David Miller went further, opposing any lot-coverage increases and wanting to preserve as much green space as possible in the town. If residents wanted additional outdoor amenities, they could have directed builders to construct smaller houses to stay within the code, he said.

“You wanted to build to the [current] rules and now you want to change the rules,” he said.

Commission members extended the hearing because technical difficulties made it hard for some residents to participate. The commission will forward its recommendation to the Vienna Town Council, which will have the final say in the matter.

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