Efforts to place the 9-acre Rouse estate at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North McKinley Road into a local historic district appear to have pushed the property owner to move forward with the “nuclear option” – tearing it down before such government action can take place.
And, county officials say, there is not much they can do to prevent it.
“Our hands are pretty much tied,” County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said Dec. 12, effectively rebuffing a request that the county government take stronger actions to reduce the likelihood that the estate’s circa-1907 main property might be razed.
At the board’s Dec. 12 meeting, Tom Dickinson – who last April made the request that the parcel be designated a local historic district – voiced concerns about the county’s issuing paperwork necessary for the structures on the site to be demolished, and asked that county leaders “immediately intervene” on the matter.
Dickinson asked that the county issue a cease-and-desist order, stopping any demolition-prep approvals until after county staff has had the chance to fully vet the application for historic status.
That, however, appears to be a non-starter, according to County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac, who noted the County Board’s inability to get involved in what is, by law, a staff matter.
“We have no discretion,” MacIsaac said. As long as all the paperwork is in order, “the [demolition] permit must be issued – a court can compel the county to issue [it].”
Garvey noted that November’s action by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) to study the possibility of putting the parcel in a standalone historic district appears to have pushed the owners to try to beat the clock and have the house torn down before historic-preservation staff have the chance to evaluate the proposal.
(Garvey suggested that the best that could be done was to convince the property owner to hold off long enough so historic-preservation staff could document what is on it. County-government belligerence, she cautioned, was only likely to cause the property owner to reject that request.)
The property is owned by a trust set up by sportsman Randy Rouse, who purchased the estate (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.
It is rare for the HALRB to move forward on an historic-district proposal when the property owner is against it, members of the body acknowledge. But on Nov. 17 they went ahead anyway, voting 10-0 to ask staff to begin analyzing the application.
That process is likely to take well into 2021; at this point, it seems possible that its conclusions on the provenance of the site will be a moot point. Dickinson, who chairs the historic-preservation committee of the Arlington Historical Society, has not given up hope, and is working to mobilize the community.
In better times, the county government itself could potentially have been a possible purchaser of the site, but its interest appeared low even before the COVID crisis. Since then, county-government officials have pleaded poverty when confronted with proposals for new spending.
Outside of an outright purchase, there are few options available to the Arlington government.
“Virginia is a very strong property-rights state,” MacIsaac said. “The General Assembly has made it very clear individuals can use their property as they choose, subject to only very limited restrictions.”
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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