Arlington County Board 2016

2017 Arlington County Board members, from left, are Christian Dorsey, John Vihstadt, Libby Garvey, Chairman Jay Fisette and Vice Chairman Katie Cristol. (Arlington government photo)

Any effort by the Arlington County government to preserve privately owned affordable housing in Westover could end up being a case of winning the battle but losing the war.

County leaders do have the power to designate the community a local historic district, which would provide some tools to prevent the razing of existing properties, but the process could take so long that redevelopment may be done before any district can be put in place.

A “very lengthy public process” would be required to impose a historic district on the community, County Manager Mark Schwartz told County Board members on June 18.

“Rather lengthy” and “labor-intensive” is how County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac put it.

“Could be one, two, three years down the road,” added County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette.

The length could render the effort irrelevant, as several garden-style apartment buildings already are coming down in the Westover community to make way for pricey new properties, with others likely to follow.

Affordable-housing advocates and some residents in the community have pressed county officials to do something – anything – to stanch the flow. A petition calling on the county government to create a local historic district on almost the entire Westover area, including single-family homes and businesses, has been presented to county officials, and by law must now be addressed.

MacIsaac laid out the procedural steps: An initial review by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) to see if a designation is worth considering; if so, then a review by staff; then back to the HALRB for a formal recommendation; then on to public hearings and County Board consideration.

But the petitioners may have made a strategic blunder: They have called for an historic district so large in scale that it will take county staff longer to analyze it, and may end up alienating owners of single-family properties and businesses in the corridor who otherwise would be amenable to a more tightly-constrained district.

County officials say they plan to send letters to property owners in the area designated in the petition this week, and anticipate hosting a community meeting in July.

County Board member John Vihstadt, who lives near the affected area, said he is supportive of at least considering an historic district, but said the interests of all property owners need to be kept in mind.

“There are going to be different perspectives depending if you’re a tenant, if you’re a business owner, if you’re a landlord,” Vihstadt said.

One stop-gap measure sought by housing advocate John Reeder, who spoke at the June 18 board meeting, is to impose a moratorium on demolition permits in the area. Not a chance, MacIsaac restored.

“The law is unequivocal” that such a moratorium would be illegal in Virginia. “The courts have been clear.”

If the county government wanted to ensure preservation of the existing garden-style units, “the one course of action you could do is buy it all yourself,” MacIsaac told board members.

If the County Board opted to go that (unlikely) route, it could either try to come to agreement with property owners to sell, or could use its eminent-domain powers to take the property by paying what the courts determine is fair-market value.

Unlike inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places or Virginia Landmarks Register, which are largely honorific, creation of a local historic district in Virginia brings with it the power to regulate exterior changes to a property. In Arlington, most of that regulation is delegated to the HALRB, whose members are appointed by the County Board.

But with the process of creating a district a lengthy one and the option of stopping demolition already off the table, the county government may be forced to find other ways of addressing the situation. An historic district is just “one of many tools” that might be employed, County Board member Christian Dorsey said.

Located both north and south of Washington Boulevard in the western end of the county, and until the late 1930s mostly farmland, Westover’s development took place mostly in a 15-year period running to the mid-1950s with the construction of housing, schools and the Westover Shopping Center.