Neighbors’ Views Trump Homeowner’s, When It Comes to Building an Addition

In the name preserving “open space” and the “historic fabric” of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, a group of preservationist elitists stop a homeowner – for three years – from adding modest additions to her historic home to meet her family’s needs.

Arbitrary Regulations Give Neighbors More Power than Homeowner Over Home

Amy Bayer adores her stately home in the Old Town Historic District of Alexandria, Virginia. Built around 1815, its red brick walls and historic architectural design compliment the neighborhood. The only drawback is that the house isn’t big enough for her family’s needs. Yet when Bayer sought to add onto her home, she discovered that her neighbors believed they should have the final word on her plans. Worse, they possessed the means to create a bureaucratic nightmare for Bayer if she didn’t bow to their wishes.

Bayer purchased her home in 1994. In 2001, she decided to build a guest room and a family room to accommodate her children. After consulting the city’s design guidelines on home additions, she submitted plans to Alexandria’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR), which must grant approval to changes on historic properties. Bayer and her architect were careful to harmonize their plans with the historic fabric of Old Town Alexandria. They kept the plans within the architectural style of the rest of the home and met all regular zoning requirements. While most of her neighbors supported her plans, the neighbors on the side of the property where the addition would be built – Lawrence and Ashley O’Connor – believed the addition would hurt the historic district by “shrink[ing] the limited open space in the neighborhood.” While this concern may be true for most Old Town properties, the Bayer property is uncommon because the house sits on a spacious, multi-lot parcel of land. Nonetheless, the BAR rejected Bayer’s plans after the O’Connors and local preservationists voiced their opposition at hearings and public forums.

Bayer appealed the BAR decision to Alexandria’s City Council, arguing that her home was no different from hundreds of others in Old Town approved for similar improvements in the past. The City Council agreed with Bayer and approved her plans. The O’Connors and the preservationists appealed the decision in state court, contending that the Alexandria City Council failed to use proper standards when it decided the case. In May of 2003, Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Donald Haddock ruled against Bayer and ordered the City Council to rehear the case. At that point, Bayer sought a compromise by seeking BAR permission to build a free-standing addition connected to the house by a covered walkway. This idea was based on the notion that the BAR justified its original denial not with concern for open space, but on the grounds that any “demolition or encapsulation” (the tearing down of walls or closing in of original architecture) of the house – no matter how minor – threatens the goals of the historic district. Bayer offered this compromise despite the fact that the BAR routinely approves “demolition and encapsulation” plans similar to her original plans.

The O’Connors and preservationists again threatened to block Bayer’s plans. Not wanting to delay her addition any longer, Bayer capitulated. She submitted yet another new plan to the BAR in January of 2004 that proposed an addition on the opposite side of the house but with the same square footage as the plan submitted three years earlier. The BAR approved this new plan after her opponents dropped their legal challenge.

Three years and tens of thousands of dollars in architectural and legal fees later, Bayer was relieved that construction has finally started on the addition, but she was bitter about how cumbersome and costly Alexandria’s arbitrary historic district regulations are for property owners. To help cover the cost of her fight – and highlight the inconsistency of Alexandria’s laws – she is considering selling the lot on the northern side of the house (her first choice for the addition) where a brand new house could then be built by a new owner in accordance with historic district regulations. A new structure would completely obstruct the O’Connors’ view and leave no remaining open space. The addition to the Bayer home that was denied by the BAR would have left 65 percent of the lot open and green.

Sources: Amy Bayer, The Washington Post (July 3, 2003; September 9, 2003)

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