Arlington homeowners will have to wait a little longer if they want to build new backyard cottages like this one in Portland, OR. Image by linamenard licensed under Creative Commons.

After a three-hour-long hearing Monday night, Arlington County Board members voted to approve a slew of zoning amendments that will hopefully increase the amount of accessory apartments built and permitted in the county.

However, some last minute indecision means we’ll have to wait a little while longer for detached units like carriage houses or garage conversions.

Accessory apartments (or as Arlington calls them, accessory dwellings or ADs) have been legal in Arlington since 2009. The benefits of ADs are many: they are naturally cheaper rental options in predominantly more expensive single family neighborhoods, they increase the density of an area without significantly changing the buildings in the area, and they provide a source of income to homeowners, allowing older homeowners in particular to stay in the neighborhood, rent out a piece of their estate, and better utilize their space.

A decade ago, the battle to legalize accessory apartments in Arlington was hard fought, and resulted in overly burdensome regulations. The results have been uninspiring: in total, only 20 ADs have been permitted in the whole county to date.

The amendments on the table this last week were part of a long term effort by advocates and planners to simplify the cumbersome AD regulations and 1) encourage more “unpermitted” AD owners to come in and get permitted, and 2) encourage more new homeowners to construct or retrofit accessory apartments on their properties.

County Board members (mostly) agree: There should be more ADs in Arlington

Many readers sent in emails to the County Board about this issue, and more than half of those testifying Monday night were in favor of a robust accessory apartment program (though, of course, a few detractors inevitably showed up.)

Despite the few negative testimonies, board members were obviously affected by the overall positive shift of opinion. As Chair Jay Fisette commented from the dais, the “tone and tenor” of the conversation was dramatically different that in 2008, when there was a lot of “fear and anxiety” about this change.

Ultimately, the County Board passed nearly all of the reforms recommended by county staff, with many members declaring their overarching support for more ADs in Arlington. Here are some of the big wins:

  • Removed extraneous design review regulations that were applied only to ADs and not to other homes
  • Increased size limit of all ADs (with no cap for the size of a basement unit)
  • Made owner-occupancy regulations more flexible
  • Removed the annual cap for the number of permissible ADs in the county (previously 28 per year)

Last minute amendment makes for a hollow victory

Perhaps one of the biggest reforms under discussion was the allowance of detached accessory apartments, such as carriage homes or converting garages into livable spaces. This is currently illegal in Arlington, and a change would allow for thousands of such existing structures to be retrofitted into homes. It would also allow homeowners to build new detached ADs, which is really taking off in cities like Portland, which has a thriving accessory apartment scene.

Unfortunately, here a few board members wavered. Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt had a host of concerns, including the allowed height of these new buildings and their effects on Arlington’s tree canopy. They, along with Christian Dorsey, put forward an amendment to direct the county staff to study these issues further before approval.

Chair Jay Fisette strongly disagreed, and eventually the board narrowed the amendment to a very specific detail: setbacks, or how close one can build these structures to a neighbor’s property line. The proposal under review allowed building detached accessory apartments up to one foot away from the property line. The “wait and study more” amendment passed, with Fisette and Vihstadt opposing (Vihstadt because he felt that the amendment should cover more than just the setback issue).

Effectively, this amendment means that existing detached structures in Arlington have the go ahead today to become accessory apartments. However, anyone considering building a new building destined to be rented out needs to wait for this coming report and subsequent vote, which was given no clear timeline.

In the end, the entire package, including the amendment to hit the pause button on new detached units, passed 4-1, with Vihstadt opposing.

It’s not immediately clear how soon county staff will deliver their updated report on the setback number, but the non-vote Monday means that the county will need to re-advertise that particular zoning amendment, do another set of public meetings, then vote again. It is likely to eventually pass; even Libby Garvey (who proposed the delay-amendment) said repeatedly that she wants to see detached ADs in Arlington, but was concerned about these details.

So got a basement you want to rent out in Arlington? Green light. Want to build a new backyard cottage? Not any time soon.

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.