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Arlington County Civic Federation

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DRAFT Letter on Pipestem Lots

The following is a draft letter that will be submitted to the Federation for approval tomorrow night (March 4, 2003). It is the product of several intensive meetings on the subject.

Kim Smith

March 3, 2003

Mr. Ted Saks, Chairman
Arlington County Planning Commission
2201 Clarendon Blvd.
Arlington, VA. 22201

Re: Meeting of March 3: pipe stem lots

The following reflects the views of the Planning and Zoning Committee of the Civic Federation; the full Federation will consider this matter at its meeting on March 4, 2003, and hence the Federation position presented to the County Board on March 15 may differ from that set out below. The views below are largely consistent with the views that we expressed at the Planning Commission last month, but are more detailed and take into account both the discussion at the Planning Commission meeting and new information developed by staff since that time in response to questions raised by the Commission members and speakers.

Our position is premised on the following three observations: first, pipe stem lots carved out of larger lots are among the most challenging to develop, and their development is almost always controversial with the immediate neighbors; second, the lots that are candidates for pipe stem subdivision differ markedly from one another, and there is no one size solution that fits all; and third, the changes proposed by ZORC and staff address some of the current problems, but may lead to new ones, and in any event do not address the need for greater community input and for solutions tailored to the specifics of the lot in question.

(1) Special site plan review process. The Committee recommends that development of pipe stem lots be permitted only through a modified site plan review process that includes the neighboring property owners and civic association. The process should involve community input both into how the lot is subdivided, and the placement of the structures on the subdivided lots. To facilitate the process, staff should provide guidelines for developers that would include the option for split lot subdivision with community support, side yard setbacks of 25 feet, and a general requirement that new structures be compatible in size and height to structures on surrounding lots. The goal is to provide flexibility with community input to take into account the unique situation of each lot, including typography, major trees, placement, size, and scale of houses on adjoining properties, the character of the street, storm water drainage, etc. We would expect that applications would be denied when guidelines are not met and the community opposes the subdivision and site plan.

(2) Properties affected by change. We recommend that the new process apply to all existing and future pipe stem lot subdivisions, whether or not the pipe stem lot has been developed, with one exception: approved but undeveloped pipe stem lots for which a building permit application has been filed or approved. We further recommend that the split lot option as recommended by staff be a by-right option for any pipe stem lot subdivision that falls within this exception. We believe that this exception would apply to at least one currently approved pipe stem lot in the East Falls Church Civic Association area. We understand that both the developer and the immediate neighbors prefer a split lot solution for this particular property.

(3) Recommendations if pipe stem lots remain by-right. If pipe stem lots continue to be allowed on a by-right basis (and we strongly prefer the modified site plan process instead), then we support the staff recommendation increasing the side yard minimum to 25 feet. This should apply to all existing (and future) pipe stem lots, including those approved but not built on. While we favor a creative solution to the East Falls Church pipe stem development problem, we do not favor, as a general matter, the creation of new by-right options for split lots or two-lot unified districts. While the latter may provide preferable solutions in some pipe stem lot situations, they may inadvertently create a whole new set of subdivision problems, including unintended incentives to demolish existing houses and to develop in a manner that fundamentally changes the character of a street. For example, we believe that split lots are almost always more valuable to a developer than pipe stem subdivisions, since both lots have street frontage; but the creation of substandard frontage lots in many instances may be wholly out of character with the existing developed lots on the street. Such inappropriate development would be contrary to current County policy of preserving and protecting existing single family neighborhoods, and supporting recognition of the historic character of many of our older neighborhoods through National Register designation.

We appreciate your consideration of our views.


This page was last revised on: December 27, 2003.
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