Parker-Gray residents reshape home improvement guidelines

Home improvement regulations long seen by Parker-Gray residents as onerous and overly restrictive are poised for an overhaul.

Like their neighbors in the Old and Historic Alexandria District, residents in the Parker-Gray Historic District must adhere to city guidelines for property improvements, including receiving approval from city staff or the board of architectural review. For homeowners like Bradley King, it’s often a complicated and frustrating system.

“What hits home the most is my situation: [My home] is a 1955 row house,” King said. “It’s being regulated like George Washington slept there. That’s just beyond ridiculous, regulating the brick row houses like George Washington slept there. It’s just laughable.”

King ran afoul of the regulations and BAR’s authority last year. He thought tearing down the rusty fence lining his front yard was doing the neighborhood an aesthetic favor. The board — and city staff — disagreed. After appearing before the BAR and paying a $250 fee, King received a nine-page city report on the historic nature of the demolished fence.

City officials met resident concerns soon after, forming an ad hoc committee — comprised of BAR members and civic association representatives — to study regulations for the neighborhood and offer up changes. After months of negotiations, the group’s recommendations, which largely free residents from making BAR appearances for home improvement projects, will likely go before the board for tweaking in October.

“I think we have made a huge amount of progress, and by progress, I mean just hopefully making the building materials and maintenance and sustainable energy features easier for everybody to use,” said Al Cox, the city’s preservationist.

Cox, who has at times borne the brunt of resident outrage, said the group took an exhaustive look at the guidelines. Among the slew of proposed changes, Cox points to an easing of backyard regulations as the most notable difference.

“I don’t think the BAR wants to be in the business of regulating what’s in people’s backyards, and heretofore if you had a public alley and a chain-link fence, everything in your backyard was reviewed: sheds, the deck, the fence, windows and patio doors, all of that stuff was reviewed,” he said. “So what happens — and this is true throughout Old Town — the BAR tends to get used by the neighbors as a board of taste and that’s not its purpose. It’s a preservation review board.”

Still, the changes have critics, BAR member Philip Moffat chief among them. Though a member of the group, Moffat remains concerned the recommendations — if adopted wholesale — could erode the neighborhood’s historic feel, particularly easing window and siding regulations.

“I worry we’re reaching a point where cubic zirconia is viewed equivalent to a diamond,” said Moffat. “I’m worried about the piecemeal loss of historic fabric that over the long term will degrade [the neighborhood] and quality of life.”

But like Cox, Moffat doesn’t view all the changes as controversial. Cox expects the BAR to approve most of them by the year’s end. A few require zoning ordinance changes, and those suggestions likely will head before Alexandria City Council after January.

Several projects in the neighborhood approved by the BAR earlier this month indicate support for most of the recommendations. Three cases called for using HardiePlank on historic homes and received approval. Staff used the projects as trial balloons to gauge the board’s feeling toward the proposed changes, Cox said.

While residents like King want regulations loosened further, he sees the committee’s recommendations as a step in the right direction.

“It’s one thing to preserve a genuinely historic building,” King said. “It’s another to take a house that was a little rundown and prevent the homeowners from bringing them up to standard. I’d like to have the liberty to improve my home.”

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