Fairfax BZA hands win to American Legion post in McLean

The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals on Feb. 27 overturned the county zoning administrator's ruling regarding events held at American Legion Post 270 in McLean. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

American Legion Post 270 in 1949 received permission to build a clubhouse after the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors sided with the organization over objections from neighbors and county planning officials.

Seven decades later, fortune has favored the post again.

The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on Feb. 27 unanimously overturned the county zoning administrator’s ruling that private events held by the post constituted a commercial indoor-recreation use not allowable in the R-3 residential zoning district without a special-exception permit.

Begun in 1946 by World War 11 veterans, Post 270 initially met at the McLean firehouse and received its official American Legion charter in December 1949.

The county’s BZA in February 1949 denied the post’s application to establish a clubhouse, which some nearby residents feared would produce too much noise from its commercial operations. The Board of Supervisors referred the matter to the Planning Commission for further study, and the commission sided with the BZA’s decision.

But supervisors then reversed that ruling and let the post proceed without imposing any development conditions.

The post since 1955 has occupied a 2,880-square-foot building constructed in 1955 on 1.5 acres at 1355 Balls Hill Road. The organization long relied on citrus sales as its primary fund-raising mechanism, but when that revenue source began drying up in 2016, leaders began renting out the facility more, said County Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson.

In 2016 alone, the 338-member post hosted 269 events catering to more than 11,400 non-post members, county officials said. These shindigs included 85 daytime events, 84 nighttime gatherings and 100 evening events in which the post charged unaffiliated groups a fee or security deposit, they said.

In December 2016 and early 2017, the McLean District Police Station and Dranesville District supervisor’s office received noise complaints from the post’s neighbors. Johnson on April 24, 2018, determined that the scope and scale of the post’s events constituted an expansion of use beyond that of a private club.

Johnson told the post it could solve the problem by obtaining a special-exception permit from county supervisors. Getting a special-exception permit requires five to six months and payment of a $16,375 fee (plus lawyers’ fees), officials said.

The post’s leadership neither obtained such a permit nor appealed her ruling, officials said.

After receipt of further noise complaints, employees with the county’s Department of Code Compliance inspected the post during events on Aug. 11 and Sept. 15, 2018, and on Oct. 5 issued the post a violation notice concerning those events. The post then appealed the notice.

Post leaders and county officials differed over whether those events had been hosted or attended by post members. County inspectors said they could not hear noise from the post’s events on neighbors’ properties and added that sounds emanated from the building only when its door was propped open.

Several neighboring residents testified at the two-hour-long public hearing that thumping bass notes from music played inside the post’s building kept them awake late at night and made it difficult for them to enjoy their lives.

Post Cmdr. Robert Molepske said he had worked hard since becoming the organization’s leader in 2017 to reduce noise at the site, including measuring sound in the building with an audiometer and banning the use of sub-woofers. The facility serves as a low-cost alternative for member veterans, he said.

“Not everyone in McLean is super-rich,” Molepske said.

BZA member Max Beard said the county’s 1949 approval did not prevent the post from renting its facility and that the current problem stemmed from the zoning administrator’s subsequent determination.

“We’re not talking about a restaurant facility or a hotel,” Beard said. “This has never changed ownership. It’s the same people. Very respectfully, I see this as trying to reel them in and bring them in under the existing codes.”

Some BZA members doubted their decision would end the friction between the post and its neighbors.

“Every swim and tennis club, every church has development conditions on them now,” said BZA Vice Chairman Paul Hammack Jr. “Nobody gets to run things 24 hours per day, seven days a week, if they want to.”

BZA member James Hart advised post leaders to contact an attorney about the situation.

“Whatever else happens, this sounds like it’s going to court, depending on what we do,” he said.


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