Building in Arlington County: Nightmare

Many people dream of building their own home.  If your dream is to build yours in Arlington County then you need to be very careful in your planning, budgeting and team selection to avoid some of the snags I encountered.

Of all the places in the Washington area where I’ve renovated homes or built homes, Arlington County is the toughest place to obtain building permits. It has an abnormal amount of regulation and recent changes made to building requirements are adding significant costs and time to the permit process.  The county is faced with a significant number of building lots that were created more than 100 years ago that are no longer conforming to modern building requirements. So the rules for building on them can be quite complicated.  The county is trying to make rules that will allow building but still address modern concerns for fire and water pollution.  Navigating this process can be daunting for all involved.

In hind sight I now know that you can’t just hire a good contractor and engineer to work in Arlington.  You need to hire professionals who have a recent successful track record there for the type of project you’re planning.  Seeking the counsel of an Arlington land use attorney before purchasing a lot is also advised to help avoid misunderstanding and miscommunication.

For the past half dozen years, my business has concentrated on buying existing homes, renovating them and reselling them on the open market.  But in recent years more flippers have entered the market and the supply of foreclosed houses has dwindled, making that part of my business much more competitive.

A couple of years ago, I bought a home in North Arlington.  It was on a 5,000-square-foot lot and zoned C-1 for commercial use.  The lot had a small rundown home on it.  The foundation was completely failing and the home sat too close to the property line, making it difficult to renovate.  It would have been possible to lift the home and replace the foundation but it would have still required a time-consuming variance and there was no guarantee we would have been able to make the structure straight and right again.

The lot was also too small for any commercial property development.  So before I purchased the home, I made several calls to the county to verify the setbacks and ensure that I could build a new single-family house on a lot that was zoned for commercial use.  A few county employees confirmed that I could build a residence there.

With that, I closed on the home and was amazed to learn that it would take four months just to get a permit to demolish the existing property.  It takes up to three months to get the utility companies to disconnect their lines and provide a letter that is required to be submitted with your demolition permit application.  Once I had all of those letters, I submitted an application to demolish the property; it took about another month to get approval.

Before we demolished the existing home, my contractor met at the site with a supervisor from the county’s building department. The official walked the lot and he confirmed, again, that we could build a single-family house on the lot and the official even sketched out the permissible size of the house’s footprint.

Based on that information, we demolished the existing structure and drew up full plans and submitted them to the county with an application to build a new 2,500-square-foot house with a full basement, covered porch and a driveway.  The house design was very respectful of the neighborhood’s style and size.

Soon after submitting our plans, zoning informed us that, in fact, we could not build a residential property on a commercial lot that is less than 6,000 square feet in gross size without first getting a variance.  This was very odd to me.  You can build a residence on a much smaller lot if it is zoned residential.  And you can build a commercial property on the lot by right even though commercial properties have significant requirements for parking and access.

And I was astounded that none of the county employees that we’d previously talked to knew or informed us of this fact.  Had we known that we would be required to seek a variance for new construction we probably would have chosen to renovate the existing structure.  The main reason we demolished the existing home was to avoid the variance process because it is very time consuming, expensive and uncertain.

By that point the milk was spilled and there was no use crying about it so I prepared an application for a variance with the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

We also learned at this time that just a couple months before we submitted our application for a building permit the county had adopted new stringent storm water management regulations.  These rules require that storm water runoff from hard surfaces be collected, filtered and stored on site in water retention facilities.

We also learned that an arborist needed to be retained to draw up plans for landscaping, which requires a certain amount of lot tree and shrub coverage and protection of existing trees during construction.  We hired an engineer and arborist to get started on the plans and learned that it would cost about $8,000 for their services.  We paid the initial deposit and set them to work.  They estimated that it would take two to three months to complete the plans.

After hiring the engineer and applying for a variance all I could do was sit and wait for my hearing, which was scheduled for more than four months after the date we first submitted our original building application.

I waited for months for my variance hearing and consulted regularly with county officials.  Just weeks before my hearing, the county informed me that my lot was not actually zoned C-1.  It was in fact zoned R-6, that’s a residential zoning.  Apparently, the lot across the street was rezoned to C-1 and at that time someone at the county mistakenly labeled my lot C-1 as well.  So I was told that I did not need a variance.

That really stunk, costing me four months of my time and energy. Still, I thought, I was off to the races.  I contacted the engineer because a couple months had passed since he started his work and I assumed he would be almost finished.  He was not even close.

It turns out that this engineer had not ever done one of these plans since the new rules had gone into effect.  The story with the engineer is long and complicated and could be its own separate column.  The short version is that this engineer could not get the job done.  He complained that the rules and the facilities that the county required were nonsense and he pushed his own solution.

Ten months after hiring this engineer, I personally took his plans and sat down with a supervisor from Arlington County’s Department of Environmental Services.  She looked at the plans and said they weren’t even close.  That was the third official submission attempt by the engineer and he’d submitted at least a half dozen versions for unofficial review and feedback along the way.  Clearly, he was not the man for the job so we fired him and moved on.

I interviewed no less than four other engineers to take over the work.  We selected an engineer who had recently completed a plan for the county.  He couldn’t fully explain to me the regulations and he basically just said he would put something together that would be close, submit it and then do what the county asked him to do to get it to pass.  That’s basically what the other engineers said as well.  I was discouraged but after about three months with the new engineer we had an approved storm water management plan.

But we weren’t done.  From there, we had to submit our structural plans which took about a month to get approved.  Then we submitted to zoning.  I asked why we couldn’t submit to zoning and structural at the same time.  I also pointed out that this seemed to be a different process than what is described on the county website.  You can’t fight city hall so I sat and waited.

I also learned that I had to record the storm water management maintenance agreement on the property deed.  I would have to agree to maintain the storm water management facilities;  whoever buys the home must follow suit.

We had to use one large concrete planter and a large filtration trench in the back yard.  We also had to install a pervious driveway which is much more complicated than just putting down paver stones or gravel.   I’m told the driveway and detention facilities require maintenance every five or six years.  The cost of the facilities and driveway are in excess of $20,000 plus the nearly $10,000 we spent on engineering.

There were 10 departments within the county that finally reviewed, commented and ultimately approved our plans.

Fifteen months after our first submission for our original building permit, we finally won approval.  But it took more than two months from that date to actually get a shovel in the ground.  My contractor went over to the county several times to pick up the plans and permits to find that someone from one of the approving departments was not there to sign off.  It showed in the system that the plans were approved but they require that the actual person who approved the plans must sign the plans.  I was amazed that anyone in the department could not sign off on the plans after simply looking into the computer system to see they were approved.

When we finally tracked everyone down and got all of the signatures, we learned that we could not start construction until we had an onsite preplanning meeting.  This again took several weeks to set up.  All together the process took us nearly 20 months to gain permits.

My story is not the only one out there.  While I was seeking permits and hanging around the planning and zoning public hearings I was approached by a neighbor who was trying to build her home not far from my project.  She informed me that her engineer struggled for six months with the storm water management requirements and she told me of another lady who was having similar problems and was about to give up on her project.

These are real and significant costs to any construction project in Arlington County.  I estimate that these new rules and the process are costing Arlington residents.  If you have an old home that you want to sell to a developer for land value you are likely going to get $50,000 to $100,000 less than you might have gotten before.

If you are considering building your home in Arlington County make sure you do a lot of homework before hand.  Don’t just take someone’s word at the county.  Something as simple as a large tree on your lot could become a huge impediment to your plans.

Don’t rely on the word of one representative from one department.  Make sure you specifically consult with someone from Zoning and from the Department of Environmental Services.  I recommend that you do not close on a property until you have submitted an official building permit to the county and received official feedback that you can, in fact, build the home you want on the lot.  The problem is that it might cost you $30,000 to have all the plans and engineering drawn up for the official submission.  Still, that’s better than paying $400,000 for a lot that you cannot build on, or cannot build what you want.

You should also take this into account when you’re setting up your financing.  Most construction loans are for a term of one year.  It will be very difficult to complete a home in Arlington County in less than 18 months.  If you cannot get a two-year construction loan then make sure that your loan has built-in extensions but beware of the extension fees.

I am still very confused about the requirements and the process in Arlington County.  I asked numerous county employees to provide input and clarify the process and rules for this column but I got no response.

The storm water management regulations require a significant amount of land.  Be very careful buying a lot that is under 5,000 square feet.

When selecting your team make sure that your contractor and engineers have completed projects in Arlington County within the past year.  You may also want to retain a land use attorney experienced in Arlington County.  You may be surprised to find out that you will need a variance to complete your project.  A lot of people seem to fall into the variance requirement.  I did my variance on my own. So it can be done but a good attorney can help navigate the process.

But even an attorney is no guarantee.  I just spoke with another developer who bought a lot in Arlington thinking he could build four homes on the lot based on the counsel of his attorney.  After purchasing the land and applying for a subdivision he found out the lot could not be subdivided.  He told me they lost $900,000 on the deal.

Proceed with caution.  But if you are successful, Arlington County has a lot to offer its residents and a successful construction project can be very rewarding.  Arlington home values are strong and steady.


  1. Elizabeth on February 26, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Regulation is like a tax… The practices you describe no doubt contribute to the cost of housing in Arlington. This drives out middle class people. The folks in charge don’t seem to mind.
    It’s too bad that the Commonwealth cannot limit this king of bureaucratic nonsense by local “governments” and reward people who take the risks of rehabilitating properties.

    • Justin Pierce on February 27, 2017 at 1:44 am

      Yes, and then they talk about affordable housing out of the other side of their mouth while they do everything to drive up it’s costs.

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