With a unanimous vote, Arlington’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) kicked the controversy over preservation of the Rouse estate on Wilson Boulevard up to the County Board.
The action, taken Jan. 27 after the matter was fast-tracked through what ordinarily would have been a much more drawn-out process, puts the advisory body at odds with the owners of the 9-acre property, who want to raze the buildings and sell off the tract.
The result is likely to be a test of wills, as attorneys for the developer work to force government officials to issue a demolition permit, and preservationists attempt to beat them to the punch by having the estate designated as a local historic district.
That decision rests with the County Board, but can’t occur until a public hearing – which itself can’t occur until the matter has been properly advertised in accordance with state law.
The afternoon of Feb. 1, County Board spokesman Mary Curtius told the Sun Gazette that, as of yet, there is no timetable for getting the matter in front of elected officials.
Board chair Matt de Ferranti “is consulting with county historic-preservation staff and the county attorney on potential next steps,” she said. “The board appreciates the HALRB’s recommendation.”
(The next regular meetings of the County Board are Feb. 20 and 23, but board member always could opt to hold a special meeting on the subject so long as they adhere to legal-advertising requirements laid down by the state government.)
Even if preservationists win the footrace and obtain historic status before a demolition permit is issued, the matter could wind up in court – and as County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac has opined in open session several times, the property owners are likely to prevail.
HALRB members on Jan. 27 declared that the parcel met enough criteria to be recommended for historic status. Its brisk action was a far cry from what had been expected when, in December, county preservation staff said it would take upward of six months to fully vet the property’s provenance.
But with the developer insistent on knocking down the century-old home on the property, HALRB members skirted the niceties of the designation process in order to get the matter to the County Board.
“It’s clear to me the built structures [on the parcel] are at risk – are at substantial risk,” said HALRB chairman Richard Woodruff, who said the county code gives his group authority to skip normal steps if the situation warrants.
“There’s enough known about the property today to make a finding,” he said. “It’s important we act on this.”
“The landowner is adamantly opposed to this route,” said Thomas Colucci, a founder and principal of Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh PC, one of the region’s premier law firms on land-use issues.
HALRB members have suggested, as a compromise, allowing development on the bulk of the Rouse property while preserving the main house and some surrounding land. But Colucci was not giving an inch.
Walsh candidly acknowledged that the owners of the property planned to knock it down to make way for new development, and said potential buyers for the tract were being scared away.
“This whole discussion has had a chilling effect on the sale of the property,” Colucci said at the Jan. 27 hearing. “Whatever would be done [to mandate preservation] would devalue the property.”
(That last part would seem to set down a marker to county officials, cautioning them about the potential legal ramifications, in a decidedly property-rights-oriented state, of imposing historic designation against the wishes of the property owner.)
The parcel is located at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North McKinley Road. It is what remains of a 26-acre tract purchased by sportsman Randy Rouse in the 1950s. Rouse owned it until his death at age 100 in 2017; his widow had been residing in the circa-1907 main house until recently.
(While some use the Rouse name to denote the property, preservationists seem to prefer “Febrey-Lothrop,” which harks back to previous families that owned the land.)
It is rare for the HALRB to move forward on an historic-district proposal when the property owner is adamantly opposed. Several years ago, the body passed on getting involved in the preservation of Arlington Presbyterian Church on Columbia Pike after the congregation voiced its opposition to saving building, which was roughly as old as the Rouse estate. It was razed to make way for apartments.
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.
Historic designation, alone, does not prohibit the owner from tearing down a property, although it does put some procedural hurdles in the way.
[Sun Gazette Newspapers provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa or Rappahannock Media LLC.]