Even if Arlington government leaders get behind the effort – and that remains a big “if” – efforts by preservationists to save the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard from the wrecking ball may simply run out of time.
“What you have going on is a race,” County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac told County Board members on Jan. 23, a race between owners of the estate demanding the county government approve a demolition permit on the one hand, and preservationists seeking to have the site designated a local historic district on the other.
And since the county government would have to go through a set of procedural and regulatory steps that could take at least weeks before imposing historic-district status against the wishes of the trust that owns the property, “I would hazard a guess you could obtain a demolition permit” faster than the designation could be approved, MacIsaac said.
As he was when the issue was brought up in December, the county attorney remained downbeat on the ability of the local government to mandate that owners maintain properties against their will.
“Historic preservation doesn’t foreclose the ultimate demolition of the building,” he said. “[Virginia] courts are very private-property-owner oriented. The heavy hand of the government is not looked upon with favor when they try to restrict a property owner’s desire to do something with it.”
As a result, McIsaac predicted: “A property owner who’s intent on demolition . . . will likely prevail.”
The Jan. 23 discussion came a week after there was confusion whether the county government indeed had issued a demolition permit – something that, as of yet, has not occurred despite one being applied for. If the county government drags its feet on issuance, the Rouse trust could go to a Circuit Court judge to force action.
The issue has become something of a local cause-célèbre, with more than 1,000 people signing a petition in support of preservation efforts related to the 9-acre estate, located at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North McKinley Road.
“The eyes of history are firmly fixed upon you,” said Tom Dickinson, who for nearly a year has pushed for preservation of at least the century-plus-old main house, if not the entire grounds.
“This is a once-and-forever opportunity,” Dickinson told County Board members.
The Arlington Historical Society board of directors on Jan. 21 sent a letter to the County Board, encouraging preservation of the home.
“Over the past 15 years, Arlington has lost many historically and architecturally important buildings to the wrecking ball. Let’s not let another gem go unprotected,” organization president Cathy Bonneville Hix said on behalf of the board.
Despite the downbeat assessment of MacIsaac, preservationists can point to one success on the issue even after County Board members in December seemed to throw cold water on their undertaking.
The Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) is now set to take up a proposal to designate the site as historic at its Jan. 27 meeting. That’s months earlier than the commission had expected to act on the matter.
If the HALRB recommends the parcel for inclusion in a self-contained historic district, the matter then goes to the Planning Commission and County Board, bodies that can only move as fast as state law covering legal advertising permits. Both bodies are required to hold public hearings, although conceivably they could be combined into one meeting.
The question then may boil down to: Does the county leadership actually want to get involved at all? The answer, if the tea leaves are being read properly, appears to be “no” – at least in terms of purchasing part or all of the parcel with taxpayer funds.
“We don’t have any money to acquire the property at this point,” said board member Takis Karantonis. He was echoed by board chair Matt de Ferranti, who said the projected cost of “tens of millions of dollars” would be prohibitive at a time county officials are predicting budget shortfalls.
Another point that may weigh on them: Should the matter end up in court, County Board members also might find themselves on the stand, something no elected official relishes.
County Manager Mark Schwartz compared the Rouse estate to the Reevesland property near Bon Air Park. Around 2001, the county government purchased that property, only to neglect it for more than a decade and spend years more trying to find a partner or outright buyer for what by that point was a dilapidated shell of its former self.
(For those who like to take tea-leaf-reading to extremes, bringing up Reevesland could have been a wink and nod from Schwartz that staff is in no way interested in going down the same path with the Rouse estate.)
The property at the heart of all the contention is owned by a trust set up by sportsman Randy Rouse, who purchased the compound (then consisting of 26 acres) in 1951 and owned it until his death at age 100 in 2017. His widow had been residing in the circa-1907 main house until recently.
It is rare for the HALRB to move forward on an historic-district proposal when the property owner is adamantly opposed. But on Nov. 17 they began the process anyway, voting 10-0 to ask staff to begin analyzing the application submitted by Dickinson in April 2020.
At the time, staff said it would take perhaps six months to do the analysis needed to make a recommendation on historic status. But it appears HALRB members have decided to circumvent that and, potentially, create a district without such background material. (That could be another procedural quirk brought up by the estate in any future court case.)
At their November meeting, HALRB members indicated they would not press to preserve the entire parcel, but wanted to work with the current or future landowners to permit development on the bulk of the acreage while allowing the main home and some small surrounding area to remain untouched.
Currently, a total of 13 individual houses are counted as historic districts in Arlington, ranging in provenance from 1760 to 1931. Homeowners in more broad-based historic districts (such as Maywood) also have to adhere to design guidelines and receive approval from staff or the HALRB to make certain changes to the exterior of their properties.
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