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BAR defers historic home modification decision, admits it is ‘a crappy situation’

Exterior piping at 319 North Alfred Street (image via City of Alexandria)

(Updated 12/23) Alexandria home owner Harold White paid a local contractor to install an extensive HVAC system to a historic home (319 North Alfred Street), and after a Board of Architectural Review (BAR) decision last night it seems likely he’ll have to pay to have it taken out again.

BAR members said the case serves as an unfortunate reminder to building owners in a historic district: always get city approval before making exterior modifications.

At issue is the exterior piping along the north facing side of the building. White said after stormwater issues destroyed the building’s boiler, White had the HVAC system installed by a local contractor, who added the piping to the exterior of the building.

The issue is: 319 North Alfred Street is in the Parker-Gray District, which means any exterior modification has to get BAR approval first. Now, White is hoping to sell the home, but told the BAR one of the conditions of the sale was that the violation be resolved.

“We had a sewer back flow in July that destroyed everything in basement in 2019, including boiler system,” White told the BAR. “In October, I had a one year old kid, and we needed a more permanent fix [than space heaters]… We were never presented with any other alternative [by the contractor], we were just told this was how it needed to be done.”

It’s a situation that the BAR admitted was a difficult one for the homeowner, even as they stood firmly with the staff recommendation that an application after-the-fact to approve the exterior pipework be denied.

The BAR members unanimously agreed with the staff recommendation, though they expressed sympathy for White’s unfortunate situation.

“I do not have a predisposition against an after the fact approval if it was a good faith mistake,” said BAR member Andrew Scott. “The problem that I have right now is not an after the fact application, the problem is the nature of the work that was done and how it affects the facade of the building… I’m not mad, but I do have pretty serious concerns about this.”

Others said the exterior modification was a violation of city policy.

“I can understand your conundrum,” BAR member Margaret Miller said. “That said, it has always been the board policy to conceal mechanical systems… This is very visible from the public right of way, it’s not like it’s not visible.”

The other members of the BAR agreed and said the modification doesn’t meet city standards.

Realtor Delaine Campbell suggested adding a modification to the exterior to cover the piping, like a green wall. BAR members were skeptical, but granted a deferral to give White a chance to come back to the city with an alternative proposal.

According to Scott:

I know these things are expensive, and it’s a really crappy situation. I feel it and I take no joy in supporting this staff recommendation, but I think for the city and these guidelines, it’s the correct approach. Not for you but for everyone else, it’s an important lesson in coming to the Board before you do the work, because we could have suggested referral or a redesign. I do want you to know: I feel very badly for you, but I just don’t see how we could approve this type of alteration, especially after the fact.

After the meeting, White said the result left him feeling deflated.

“The meeting last night was very deflating at the very least,” White said in an email. “Knowing that our options are to either bear the expense of moving the piping inside the house or come back with options, I think based on the timing requirements for BAR, this will likely lead to our sales contract being terminated.”

White said the next steps are to explore a lawsuit against the contractor or seek permission to install some sort of trellis on the property.

“It’s very unfortunate that the Board would rather see us remove this unobtrusive installation and forcibly create a moisture issue inside the building (at significant cost) if we want any sort of timely resolution,” White said. “When we had the work done, I hired a well known city-based contractor to ensure things were done correctly because I was trying to ensure the safety and comfort of my family… none of that mattered to the BAR. We acted in good faith the whole time and still it didn’t matter.”

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