Debate over proposed Vassar Road subdivision rages on

Debate over proposed Vassar Road subdivision rages on

By Chris Teale (File photo)

Editor’s note: this article has been updated to correct the misspelling of Lynda Wilson’s first name.

City councilors voted last weekend to send a controversial proposal to subdivide two properties in the Clover-College Park neighborhood into three back to the city planning commission, following outcry from some neighbors about surrounding lot sizes and the proposal’s proximity to the historic President Gerald R. Ford home.

Last month, members of the planning commission voted to approve the subdivision at 809 and 811 Vassar Road over the protests of some neighbors. That action was appealed to council by 21 homeowners in the neighborhood, none of whom live on Vassar Road, who argued that city staff looked too far afield to find comparable lot sizes to justify the proposal’s approval.

Applicants Stephen and Mary Hales, who own the two Vassar Road properties in question, now face renewed uncertainty as commissioners decide whether they applied the law appropriately in determining the subdivision’s suitability. At Saturday’s public hearing, which stretched more than two and a half hours, nobody made mention of the historic Ford house.

The vote to remand the proposal back to the planning commission was narrow at 4-3, but all three councilors on the “No” side voiced support for denying the Vassar Road subdivision outright.

The discussion proved a struggle at times for city councilors, as they found themselves tripped up by a portion of the city’s zoning ordinance while trying to determine whether staff had stayed within its bounds when comparing lots with similar features and of a similar size.

The issue revolved around whether it was appropriate to compare the proposal to lots on Vassar Place, near Vassar Road, given that homes on Vassar Road differ from the rest of the neighborhood in terms of lot size. In compiling its report for the planning commission and city council, staff used a number of similarly situated and sized lots to compare the possible impact of a subdivision of 809 and 811 Vassar Road.

But opponents argued the lots on Vassar Place make up a cul-de-sac, whereas on Vassar Road houses sit along a straight-line road, with some of those who testified before council arguing that the two streets have a completely different character because of it. City councilors were inclined to agree with those who raised their objections, although they struggled to decide whether to sustain the appeal against the subdivision, reject it or send the issue back to the planning commission for further analysis.

“I share the concerns expressed, first in the choosing of the comparative lots,” said City Councilor Tim Lovain. “Just intuitively, it seemed to me that the lots on the curve going the other way were comparators but the cul-de-sac was not.”

“I feel like this language [in the zoning ordinance] is broken, and we have to fix it,” added City Councilor Justin Wilson. “We’re setting up this every single time, where what is really supposed to be almost a checklist, a ministerial decision, is becoming highly subjective analysis, and it’s not supposed to be. I don’t think that’s what the law says it should be. I’m uncomfortable with either option in this case, and that is the challenge for me.”

In the analysis of existing lots and their comparison to the proposed subdivision on Vassar, members of city staff said they used the broad latitude in the language of the ordinance to determine which lots to use as comparators, in particular the ordinance’s use of the word “similar”, which can be interpreted widely.

“The lots on Vassar Place are a cul-de-sac, on Vassar Road they are a straight,” said resident Marc Leon, who lives on Crown View Drive directly behind Vassar Road. “There is no comparison. The character of Vassar Road is not the same as the character of Vassar Place.”

The issue of whether the subdivision affects the character of the neighborhood also was a big talking point — some said it upheld the character while others argued the reverse.

“We love this neighborhood, and we perhaps have the greatest interest in preserving what the neighborhood looks like and the character, as we live next door to this new lot,” said Mary Hales, one of the applicants. “Of course, we want it to be beautiful — whatever gets built eventually — and would ensure whatever we could to make sure it follows all the laws, the infill laws and the zoning requirements by the city as we build.”

“Appropriately balancing the interests of property owners with the goal of preserving the community’s character can sometimes present difficult questions,” said David Salmons. “This is not one of those times. This is a case where the legitimate rights of the property owners are perfectly aligned with the goal of preserving the character of the neighborhood.”

Others in the area disagreed.

“I oppose the subdivision on the grounds that it would negatively affect the character of the neighborhood,” said Glenn Spitler. “Somehow I picture the curvature of this corner, and I’m not an architect, but as the human eye sees it, somehow I picture this possibly being a real appearance of a bunch of houses crammed together. That’s not the appearance of how it is on Crown View Drive.”

“It’s fairly easy to portray us as a bunch of cranks who don’t want our views spoiled, and I really want to emphasize there is something fundamentally different and special about the area we’re in,” added Tim Lloyd.

Some residents expressed concerns about the precedent set by allowing the subdivision, as they felt it would empower homeowners to attempt similar projects elsewhere, while others believe that argument is without merit.

“The slippery slope argument doesn’t really hold water, because the commission took a look at that,” said Jason Van Wagner. “They looked at the fact that this is the only set of lots that could ever come into question or be subdivided, so that issue has been addressed.

“The second one about squeezing a house in between two homes, a lot of the council members and commission have done their homework and walked the neighborhood, and the resounding argument was, ‘It looks like a house belongs between those two home sites, and it’s in character with the neighborhood.’”

“We are concerned that the practice could establish a poor precedent for future subdivisions in the city,” argued Elliot Rhodeside. “Approval of the subdivision may even enable previously denied subdivision requests to be reconsidered.”

“There have been charges that this subdivision would ‘tear the fabric of our neighborhood apart,’ which seems to me hysterical, and it is to be noted that none of the neighbors on Vassar Road are against this subdivision,” said Lynda Wilson. “Those are the people who are most affected and who will see it, and none of them are against it.”

“You have an opportunity today to correct and reverse a very bad decision of the planning commission,” said Laura Plaze. “This is a decision that will not only harm a beautiful neighborhood, but will set a bad precedent for our city.

“If this is allowed to go forward, what’s to prevent subdivision of other large lots in the city, or two adjacent lots? We don’t want to see this beautiful city carved up into ever smaller and ever more crowded lots.”

One other concern raised by neighbors was the flow of stormwater downhill from Vassar Road. Several people said that construction on Vassar in the past has caused an increased flow of stormwater onto Crown View Drive — which is below Vassar on a gradient.

“We’ve also been aware over the years of drainage problems, and I think that’s a big thing to us,” said Ann Spitler. “I don’t know if it’s a drainage pipe or what that runs at the back of our property.

“Over the years, I have been aware of four water drainage problems or situations, two of which were in the last five years. They happened when there was new construction or renovation going on. This new lot will be at the top of the hill, and I don’t know enough about drainage to know if it will happen, but I’m concerned about the people below it. Some of these lots that were compared to were flat, [so this] being on the hill concerns me.”

City Councilor Del Pepper and Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg added their voices to those worried about stormwater run-off, and James Hunt, a division chief at the city department of code administration, said it was something he and his colleagues would look into immediately for the current homes.

But a number of people, including the Hales’ land use attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs, noted that the 2007 Virginia Supreme Court decision Seymour v. City of Alexandria prevented such concerns from being considered in subdivision cases, since such proposals do not address what might be placed on the lot in the future.

City council’s decision means the planning commission will need to debate the case once again on the issue of comparable lots, and it may mean amendments to city staff’s report in the coming weeks and months.