Vienna officials for decades have limited lot coverage in residential areas to 25 percent in order to prevent overbuilding, reduce flooding and preserve the community’s small-town feel.
But some residents, builders and Town Council members advocated Sept. 27 to loosen the rules somewhat to allow homeowners to build screened-in porches and decks in order to enjoy their properties better.
Vienna officials currently are in the middle of “Code Create,” an initiative to rewrite and simplify the town’s decades-old zoning code.
Town code stipulates that no more than 25 percent of a residential lot may be covered with buildings, accessory buildings, parking spaces, driveways, sport courts, tennis courts, patios and terraces. Decks may not cover more than 5 percent of the lot area.
Not included in the regulations are open-air decks (which may not cover more than 5 percent of the lot area), stairways, tree houses and concrete coping around pools.
Town planning officials have suggested three choices for future lot-coverage rules:
• Option 1 would retain the current 25-percent limit, plus up to 5 percent for open decks, for a maximum of 30 percent.
• Option 2 would keep the above limits, but add up to 5 percent more for outdoor-living spaces such as single-story covered decks, patios and single-story screened porches unable to be converted into interior living space. The total lot coverage allowed would be 35 percent.
• Option 3 would redefine lot coverage and outdoor-living areas. Items considered building coverage would include all structures with roofs, including houses, garages, sheds, covered porches and covered decks.
Under this option, building coverage would be limited to 22 or 23 percent of the lot and outdoor-living spaces to between 8 and 13 percent (both categories still to be determined). Driveways and parking areas would be restricted to no more than 30 percent of a property’s front yard.
A recent poll conducted by town officials, which received 331 verified responses, found that 58 of respondents opposed Option 1 and 65 percent supported Option 2. Option 3 garnered exactly equal amounts (45 percent) of both support and opposition.
Jordan Rice of JDA Custom Homes said none of the proposed changes, except possibly front porches, would affect the town’s streetscape.
Rob Fisher, another builder in the town, said companies have a hard time providing outdoor-living spaces for customers while also maintaining standard room sizes in homes.
“We’re not looking at this as an opportunity to build bigger houses, but definitely as an opportunity for existing homeowners to convert decks to screened-in porches,” he said.
Council member Ed Somers said builders likely could accommodate buyers who desired such spaces.
“If a screened-in porch is so important on new construction, they can find a way to shrink the house slightly,” he said.
Council member Nisha Patel, who has focused on outdoor-living spaces from the beginning of her service, recounted the frustration of not being allowed to build a deck on her house because of lot-coverage limitations.
“There’s clearly been a calling for this,” she said of the possible rules change. “We’re trying to allow people to get outside without being inundated by bugs.”
But plenty of residents (including, in e-mailed testimony, former Mayor Laurie DiRocco, former Planning Commission member Mary McCullough and former Conservation and Sustainability Commission chairman Susan Stillman) opposed loosening the lot-coverage regulations.
“It is a big increase from 25 percent to 35 percent,” said resident Jennifer Coady. “It overwhelmingly would benefit the developer community. There’s no real justification for a 10-percent increase and not getting anything back for the residents.”
Robert McCahill, president of the North East Vienna Citizens Association, said the 25-percent lot-coverage limit had served the town well, but added that allowing more front porches would increase the sense of community and let residents engage with passersby.
Council member Howard Springsteen expressed frustration with home buyers who do not investigate the town’s lot-coverage rules in advance and find out if their properties are nearing the limit.
Some Council members inquired whether the town could require that such information be disclosed during retail sales. Recalling a long-ago battle over stormwater-management disclosures, Town Attorney Steven Briglia said such a measure likely would need the General Assembly’s approval.
Vienna officials hope to finish the Code Create initiative this winter.
Proposed zoning-code amendments first would need to be reviewed by the Vienna Planning Commission, then sent to the Town Council for a public hearing and final decision.
Council member Charles Anderson said the comparatively few survey responses show there is not a public groundswell to change the rules.
“The silence is deafening here,” he said. “People don’t usually respond when they like the way things are going.”