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Proposed lot development divides Planning Commission over how uniform Del Ray should be

Proposed lot change at 105 and 107 East Randolph Avenue, image via City of Alexandria

(Updated 4/15) What on paper might seem like a relatively commonplace resubdivision in Del Ray sparked a broader conversation at the Planning Commission over how uniform the historic neighborhood’s subdivisions should be.

The requested change (item 7) to 105 and 107 East Randolph Avenue was relatively small: increasing the square footage of one lot on Randolph Avenue from 8,250 square feet to 8,828 square feet by taking a portion of the backyard from another lot — both obviously with the same owner.

The change would leave one lot larger than its neighbors in the strictly rectangular grid plan and the lot next to it smaller than the others. The impact would be unlikely to be visible from the street, but neighbors and the Del Ray Citizens’ Association (DRCA) voice opposition to variance from the circa-1921 plot outlines.

Staff recommended denial of the change, saying the proposal would bring the lots out of character with other lots in the subdivision.

“Because the proposed subdivision does not result in lots that are substantially the same character as the area of comparison and are not in conformance with the goals of the master plan, as stipulated in the Zoning Ordinance, staff recommends the denial of the request,” the report said.

Members of the Planning Commission were divided on whether the change was out of line with the substantial character of the neighborhood. The Commission split almost evenly between those who saw the change as opening the floodgates to larger disruptions to the neighborhood and others who said the boundary change wouldn’t have a significant impact on the neighborhood.

According to Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek:

I struggle with this case. I went back and forth over the substantial character definition. Are we changing a lot by changing a lot line? No pun intended. But what really led me to agree with the staff recommendation is because the change in this lot would make one of the lots substantially larger than the others in this same subdivision. If, in the future, there were to be redevelopment on that redefined lot line: the density wouldn’t change, but the overall volume of potential development could be affected by that larger lot because you’re changing the square footage of that one compared to the norm. That’s notable in this case. I do think the irregular shape is noteworthy as well.

Commissioner David Brown said the Commission should hold changing those lines to a fairly high standard.

“I approach subdivision law very conservatively considering that this area has been undisturbed for 100 years,” Brown said. “It’s not like a variance on a garage that’s going to come and go and be there during some of the years, but not with the lasting permanence of subdivision lines.”

Strange zones in Alexandria have had some curious impacts, like a house being developed to fit on a particularly small lot. Commissioner Stephen Koenig said he didn’t take much stock in the argument that the subdivision change would affect the character of the neighborhood, but said he was voting against it on “the character of the geometry” — arguing that the neighborhood’s lot lines were “relentlessly rectangular” and the change would be out of character with the other lots around it.

Others on the Commission argued the change was pretty minor and the “character of the neighborhood” was an ill-defined concept. According to Commissioner Melissa McMahon:

I’m not convinced this change reaches the tipping point of it not being substantially the same character. We see these applications come through, and one of the oddball things to me is sometimes how narrowly defined the subdivision is. Like in this case, the subdivision we’re looking at is a relatively small area next to a bunch of other subdivisions in the same historic district, but even looking inside the subdivision there’s some variety of the depth of lots. The part that’s being cut out at the back still keeps the lot that is shrinking bigger than a whole bunch of shorter lots in this subdivision. So if we’re putting it in a table of sizes overall, I’m not convinced in my gut that this takes this out of substantially the same character of other lots.

Commissioners Mindy Lyle and Jody Manor agreed, saying this boundary line doesn’t change the character of the neighborhood, but in the end the Planning Commission voted 4-3 in favor of recommending the denial of the subdivision.

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