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Arlington County Board members on Saturday stuck a fork in it and declared the battle over preservation of the Rouse (Febrey-Lothrop) estate over.
Board members said that, with the buildings on the 9.5-acre parcel now rubble after the owner razed them to the ground in March, there wasn’t enough history left to put the parcel in its own historic district.
Anybody who’s been following this and paying attention to informed news coverage is aware that, from the beginning, County Board members had no intention of allowing this parcel to become an historic district. They and staff slow-walked the process – even County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac admitted as such on Saturday – to give the trust that owns the site all the time it needed to knock the buildings down.
As the Sun Gazette has said in editorials, county leaders’ deciding that the property should not be encumbered by the handcuffs of an historic district, particularly when the property owner is against it, is, in and of itself, a defensible position.
(The same thing happened when the congregation at Arlington Presbyterian Church, arguably a building more venerable than the Rouse house, opposed historic status for its acreage. Concerns of preservationists were ignored, and the church and its steeple was razed to make way for affordable housing.)
What is indefensible, however, is the bald-faced disingenuousness of county officials, even though everyone knew what they were up to as they refused to move expeditiously on the proposal for historic status for the Rouse house. Their motivations were so transparent as to be both sad and laughable, simultaneously.
Some months back, we offered up an editorial that said to board members, look, if you’re not going to approve a historic district for the site, just save everybody the trouble and say so. But those five, who never like to take the heat whenever they can avoid it, opted to put the community through several additional months’ worth of angst, when everyone who was paying attention knew that the fix was in.
The only people who came out with their reputations enhanced in this matter, albeit for very different reasons, were Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) chairman Richard Woodruff, who kept his head even though he obviously was irked at how this all played out, and attorney for the property owner Thomas Colucci, who burnished his reputation as a go-to lawyer on land-use issues. Colucci did what he needed to do to keep the county staff and County Board cowed throughout the process.
(It also is worth offering praise to Tom Dickinson, who led the effort to preserve the home and its grounds. Dickinson occasionally became overwrought as it became clear he was not going to get his wish, but he was an indefatigable advocate who took on the political power brokers and in many ways got the community to side with him.)
Woodruff gets the last word. The entire episode, he said, represents “a needless waste.” He’s right: It should have turned out better for all concerned. But we are where we are – and where some of us knew for months we were going to end up.