Neighbors fear new houses would overshadow Gerald R. Ford Jr. House

Neighbors fear new houses would overshadow Gerald R. Ford Jr. House

By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

Residents of Clover, a quiet local neighborhood tucked between Duke Street and Janneys and Quaker lanes, remained at odds earlier this month after members of the city planning commission approved the subdivision of two adjoining neighborhood lots on Vassar Road into three.

Neighbors spoke for and against the subdivision but most present at the last week’s meeting were opposed. Although the issue of cutting properties into smaller lots for single-family homes is not a new debate, Clover residents felt this was a unique situation.

With backyards bordering the newly subdivided lots, homeowners were concerned not only that their property values were at risk but also their views, light and privacy would disappear with the advent of new structures. They also feared their long-established neighborhood’s most prominent residence might be compromised: the Gerald R. Ford Jr. house.

In 1955, the then-congressman and his wife Betty designed and built their home at 514 Crown View Drive in Alexandria. It was in his study there in 1973 that Ford learned President Richard Nixon had nominated him as vice president, following the resignation of Spiro Agnew. And a year later, after Nixon announced his resignation, Ford got the news he would become president of the United States — and his house temporarily would become the presidential residence — in that very same study.

It took the Nixon family several days to move out of the White House and more time for the second-floor living quarters to be repainted and the Ford family belongings to be moved in.  The Ford children — Susan, Jack and Steve — continued to live in their Crown View Drive home with their mother and father, now the first couple.

According to the planning commission vote, the existing lots at 809 and 811 Vassar Road would now have an additional property sandwiched in between them. Those lots back up to properties on Crown View Drive, including the historic Ford home. The concern expressed by opponents and members of the planning commission is what could come after as a result of the subdivision.

Local development attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs argued that her clients Stephen and Mary Hales, the applicants and owners of the Vassar lots, were within their rights to divide their property into three lots. She also reminded the planning commission that they could not
look at what might happen on the lot in the future.

“We’re not talking about new development tonight, we’re talking about subdivision of land,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs also noted that two lots in the neighborhood had been subdivided in recent years and the values of nearby homes actually rose.

“We are not entitled to our views,” Gibbs said. “We are entitled to maintaining our property values.”

Gibbs said those opposed to the proposal had provided no evidence that it would impact their property value, but rather said they felt it would negatively impact how they felt about their backyards.

Stewart Dunn was the only member of the planning commission who abstained from voting. He said staff improperly compared this proposal to nearby projects with wider lots.

“We all are moved by the fact that President Ford lived here but it’s not relevant,” Dunn said. “Staff has selected lots as their comparable [projects] that are larger. … This lot is smaller in  width than any of those lots staff selected. It seems to me … they do not meet the lot width. I
think we can deny this one and we can raise questions as to the comparables.”

Commissioner David Brown said his preference would be something precluded by the Supreme Court of Virginia — to restrict the property so that there be no side yard, rear yard or front yard variances.

“Any hardship that this property … would be experiencing would be purely a function of the creation of this lot, which we heard tonight was basically a profit oriented decision toward the acquisition to this neighboring house,” Brown said.

Joanna Anderson, acting deputy director of the city department of planning and zoning, said legally the commission couldn’t restrict the owners as to the future use of the property in the decision they were ruling on that evening but measures were in place to keep the structure’s
character in line with the neighborhood.

“If they created a hardship, it should be very difficult for them to have that approved,” Anderson said. “The Board of Zoning Appeals would have to approve.”

Commissioner Mary Lyman said the commission was frustrated that they couldn’t take the future house into consideration.

“I’m a little anxious about that prospective house, even though I’m not supposed to think about it,” Lyman said. “I hope that it will be a modest one.”

Neighbor and owner of the Ford home Helen Lloyd asked the commission to preserve the historic nature of the neighborhood.

“Clover may not be officially listed as an historic area, but it should be,” Lloyd said. “The Fords designed the house and lived in it for 23 years. [The former president’s] study is surrounded by windows on three sides, and this study will now be overlooked by any development the Hales plan for this lot. This is the only ordinary residence, apart from Mount Vernon [and the Octagon House in D.C.], to have been the White House in America’s entire history.

“The Hales have told us personally that this is their kids’ college fund. I’ve already heard they’re already talking about requesting a change in the easement to build as big a property as they possibly can on this site.”

Neighbor David Rust, whose property abuts the applicants’, said one of the biggest attractions of his home is the privacy and the view. A large home on a narrow lot would take away those key features from him and his neighbors.

“The zoning ordinance specifically states that no lot shall be re-subdivided in such a manner so as to detract from adjacent property,” Rust said. “It concerns me that the staff report appears to be silent on this provision.”

Applicant Mary Hales said she loves the neighborhood and plans to raise their children and retire there.

“We have quite an interest in making sure that this doesn’t detract from the neighborhood in any manner and that is what we plan to do to fulfil every obligation we have to the city and to any ordinances, to make sure that we only add to the value of Clover-College Park because we love it as owners there,” she said.

Ford’s daughter, Susan Bales, who grew up in the house, wrote a letter opposing the proposal.

“My family has fond memories of our many years living at 514 Crown View Drive,” Bales said. “Those memories of the neighborhood remained strong, including after our move to the White House in 1974. I’m concerned that the proposed development would have negative and irreparable effects on the historic Crown View neighborhood.”

Lloyd and other neighbors said they plan to file an appeal of the planning commission’s decision.