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FairfaxReal EstateVienna considers easing rules on building porches

Vienna considers easing rules on building porches

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Front porches, those housing accessories that enable sheltered outdoor relaxation and chance conversations with passersby, soon could become a regular sight in Vienna.

The Vienna Town Council on Feb. 28 signaled its intention to adopt on March 21 a zoning amendment to allow such porches, but only after much discussion and a series of split votes.

The proposed amendment would permit porches to be up to 14 feet tall and encroach a maximum of 8 feet into the front-yard setback. Porches would need to be open on three sides and likely have railings or “knee walls,” the height limits for which town staff still is formulating.

A recent town survey found strong support for front porches, said acting Vienna Planning and Zoning Director Michael D’Orazio. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents strongly agreed with the desirability of porches and 28 percent somewhat agreed, he said.


Some Council members, however, worried that developers would take advantage of the proposed porch allowance.

Council member Howard Springsteen favored a maximum depth of 6 feet for front porches and allowing them only on houses up to 1.5 stories tall, which typically would apply to older houses within the town. Council colleague Charles Anderson had similar views, but was willing to allow 7-foot-deep porches.

Town planning staff considered 8 feet to be the “sweet spot” for porches’ usability, D’Orazio said.

Homeowners who might be tempted to go all Southern-mansion style and build massive porches, if the Council passes the zoning amendment, should be aware that such housing accessories count toward their properties’ lot coverage.

Vienna long has been capped lot coverage at 25 percent for residential areas, although town officials for months have been discussing whether to loosen those standards somewhat to allow residents more opportunities for outdoor recreation on their properties.

Anderson moved to change the proposal’s maximum porch depth to 7 feet, but that motion failed on a 3-3 tie vote. (Council member Ray Brill Jr. was absent.)

The Council also was divided on the prospect of allowing front porches on relatively short houses. While Springsteen and Anderson worried about opportunistic behavior by developers of newer and larger houses, Council member Nisha Patel – who consistently has advocated for allowing residents more outdoor-recreation opportunities on their properties – did not wish to discriminate on the basis of housing height.

“I don’t like the playing-favorites thing we’re doing here,” Patel said. “To distinguish between old and new homes becomes a slippery slope. I think either you do it for everybody or you don’t do it for anybody.”

Mayor Linda Colbert said front porches were a key issue for residents when she first campaigned for the Council. She also was reluctant to rule out porches for larger homes or reduce the porches’ depth from 8 feet.
“Six-foot just seems pretty narrow to me,” Colbert said. “A lot of the newer designs have columns, which are pretty thick.”

The Council also rejected on a 4-2 vote Anderson’s motion to allow front porches on houses up to 1.5 stories tall. Mayor Colbert and Council members Patel, Steve Potter and Ed Somers voted against the motion.

The main motion passed on a 4-2 vote, with Anderson and Springsteen voting nay. Council members will address the issue once more during final adoption on March 21, with limited options for tweaking still available.

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