The Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) voted 4-1 April 27 to overturn the zoning administrator’s ruling that American Legion Post 270 in McLean improperly was operating as a banquet-and-reception hall.
Surrounding residents have complained about noise, loitering, late-night events and parties lasting until the early morning, said Ryan Johnson, a senior planner with the Zoning Administration Division of the Department of Planning and Development.
Zoning administrator Leslie Johnson on Oct. 8 last year issued the post a notice of violation on grounds that it was operating a banquet or reception hall in contravention of new county zoning rules that had taken effect July 1, 2021. Such uses are not permitted in R-3 residential zones such as the one where the post is located, county officials said.
“There is little evidence to support that the frequent rental of the property for various non-American Legion-affiliated events is accessory to the American Legion events,” Ryan Johnson said. “The zoning ordinance clearly defines a principal use as the main use of land or structures, as distinguished from a secondary, accessory or temporary use.”
The post previously raised most of its funds from citrus sales, but switched to renting out its facility, said Leslie Johnson, who cited numerous rental contracts and Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control licenses obtained by the post.
“The post claims that it is most similar to a club, service organization or a community center,” she said. “However, given the extensive amount of private rentals on the property, the zoning administrator has concluded that its actual use is not consistent” with the post’s stated uses.
A Department of Code Compliance investigator affirmed neighbors’ complaints and provided photos with late-night partiers’ faces obscured.
Located on 1.51 acres at 1355 Balls Hill Road, the 450-member post is abutted by residential neighborhoods and The Langley School. The post’s one-story, 2,800-square-foot clubhouse building was constructed in 1955. The Board of Supervisors in 1949 approved a special exception allowing the post to operate at the site.
That approval, which came after an initial denial by the BZA, was vested and not conditioned the way a current special exception would be, said Michelle Rosati, a lawyer representing the post. The facility’s primary use is as an American Legion post, she said.
“We have a really old, really simple approval,” Rosati said. “It doesn’t have a limit on the number of events. It doesn’t have hours of operation. What it does have is a definition that says that the club cannot be used as ‘primarily for gain.’”
Three other American Legion posts are subject to Fairfax County’s authority, Rosati said.
• Springfield Post 176, which operates on a 1988 exception, is located next to residential areas and has a robust rental program, she said.
• Lorton Post 162 operates on a 2004 special exception also is located next to residential areas and has no rental limitations, she said.
• Annandale Bicentennial has a 2005 special exception, is located about a block away from multi-family residential units and has unlimited rentals.
McLean Post 270 is the only post subject to rental limitations – specifically that its activities cannot primarily be for gain, she said.
Various post activities account for about 45 to 47 hours’ worth of the operating time each week, she said.
McLean residents living near the post objected to noise at the site. “I don’t see anything happening at this post, outside of these parties,” said resident Jason Seewer.
Neighbor Andres Escobero disliked the thumping bass tones late at night. “I hope that Post 270 can find activities that are helpful to the mission of the American Legion while respecting the rights to sleep of our families,” Escobero said.
Resident Lee Zinser said noise problems at the post began in 2016 or 2017. “It’s very, very hard to sleep” with the bass beat at the post, he said. “If I have to do work in the evening, it’s hard to concentrate. It’s really difficult to go out on my patio because of this persistent beat, beat, beat.”
But Paul Kohlenberger, president of the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce, said the group supported the post’s appeal of the county’s ruling. Kohlenberger grew up in McLean not far from the post and cited the post’s contributions to the community, including hosting community forums and events involving Scouting, Daughters of the American Revolution, Rotary and other groups.
BZA members were split on how to proceed.
“I think that what is going on that’s generated these complaints exceeds the special-exception authority or use that was granted,” said BZA Secretary Karen Day. She moved to uphold the zoning administrator’s ruling, but the motion failed for lack of a second.
“There’s a lot of things going on here, but I can’t conclude that the principal use is the weekend rentals,” said BZA Vice Chairman James Hart. “I think that’s a small part of it and it’s annoying and that’s what’s driving the complaints.”
“I would suggest we come up with a solution that meets the needs of both sides,” said BZA member Daniel Aminoff.
Hart presided over the meeting. Chairman John Ribble III and member Thomas Smith III were absent.
The ruling can be appealed to the Circuit Court, BZA officials told the Sun Gazette.
The BZA’s recent ruling was not the first time county officials and post leaders had squared off. The county’ Department of Code Compliance in 2018 issued the post a notice of violation of rules governing indoor commercial recreation. Post officials appealed and the BZA overturned the zoning administrator’s ruling in 2019.
Post leaders met with county staffers from 2019 through 2021 to try to find solutions to community complaints that county officials had received.
The post has addressed complaints by installing more video-monitoring cameras, limiting rental hours, making contracts more forceful, made more sound-proofing improvements, and closing up and insulating windows, Rosati said.
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