Saga of the little barn that almost wasn’t
Guest post by Barbara Deegan
On June 17th of this year, a letter arrived from Sid Rahnavard, an Assistant Zoning Administrator for Prince William County. The language was almost completely incomprehensible. For example: “According to 32-501.08 of the Zoning Ordinance, a structure which lawfully existed before September 23, 1975, or the date of adoption of an applicable amendment to this Part 501, may continue on the FHOD only in accordance with the provisions of sections 32-601 of the Zoning Ordinance, and Section 700 of the Design and Construction Standards Manual (DCSM), and per Section 32-504.06.3 of the Zoning Ordinance, an accessory structure is not allowed on that lot that is recorded after November 27, 1990. Furthermore…”
Despite his efforts, three facts could be grasped. The first: “To correct the violations, the structure must be removed within thirty (30) days from the date of this determination.” Tear down the barn??? 30 days???
The second: the barn would have been legally non-conforming had the taxes on it been paid for more than 15 years. The third: to appeal this ruling would cost $476 prior to July 1st and $492.66 after that.
All this calamity had been set in motion when Phil had dutifully trotted down to the Building Permit department, because to achieve more light our bedroom windows were being replaced by a pair of French doors. French doors had seemed to call for a small balcony. The builders had not been going to bother with a permit—who would notice ‘way back up here in the trees? And it would cost us a day of their expensive time and an architect’s fee. But Phil follows laws, so he drew up the plan himself, and he sallied forth to the County.
Before one is ushered into the Building Permit inner sanctum, it turns out, one must first enter the Zoning Department. And before that, the Watershed Management Department. We strongly believe in Watershed Management and in Zoning to protect land from harmful development. But a second floor balcony? “Not the balcony”, said Sid. “You have no permits for your shed—or your deck—or your barn!”
“But here they all are,” Phil showed him. Here on the Plat Plan we received when we bought the place in 1996.
“We will graciously allow you the shed and the deck, but the barn? You must file an Application for Certification of Non-Conforming Use, Lot, Structure, and Sign. So Phil had filed, on May 12th. This ultimatum was the result.
By the morning after the tear-down-the-barn letter, we were thinking more clearly. It seemed clear that any taxes levied had been paid—and not just since 2000, as the letter alleged. We had paid since 1996, and if the previous owners—and they were the only previous owners—had not paid their taxes, the property could not have been sold to us. That should make the barn “legally non-conforming,” which we hoped would save it.
In our thrashing around, we sought help from several sources. Since we are faithful, if not terribly knowledgeable members of MIDCO, the Mid-County Civic Organization, Phil talked to Martin Jeter, its energetic and all-knowing leader. I called Jill Clauss, our homeowners’ association president, and an environmental engineer. The special, and monumental, problem with our barn is that it is in an RPA, in a 100 year flood zone. Jill talked to her friend, another environmental engineer who works for the County, and to our friend Gina, whose husband is an attorney. “Call Jim”, Gina said, “if you need help fighting this.”
I called the former owners, and at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning “Who would call so early?” Phil grumbled, Daryl Massey returned the call. In her soft Virginia drawl, she said that certainly they had pulled a permit. “We even got one to build the fence.” When did they build the barn? She wasn’t sure. “How old were your children then?” A mother would know. “Diana was ten; it was 1986.” Unfortunately, they had recently disposed of all the records pertaining to our house. “But, I can give you the name of the company that built it—the same man has built a barn for us here. Let us know what happens.”
I reached Mike Menton on his cell phone as he was waiting in line at the Building Permit Department of Fairfax County. He remembered the Masseys’ barn on River Forest. They had had a berm engineered to make sure it would never be flooded, even if the field was. He would look for the building permit in his records.
Mr. Menton’s records, it appears, are far superior to those of Prince William County. He called back, and he e-mailed a copy of the permit. Ha!!!!!!
Phil bearded the county in its den, talking with Cindy Pitts, our tax assessor and her boss Ken Baxter, who found that, indeed, all taxes had been paid. Debby Grady found the aerial photos that proved that the barn had been built in 1986.
Phil also talked to Nick Evers, the Zoning Administrator, and boss of Sid who wrote the letter. When they got the letter from the Tax Department, he said, Sid would write another letter “Grandfathering” our barn as an allowed structure. “That isn’t good enough!” argued Phil. “I want a letter for our files, in case this ever happens to some future owner, saying that the barn was built under permit, and all the taxes have been paid!!” Sid was out sick, Mr. Evers said. “When he returns, he will send you such a letter.”
So we have won. We have the tax records showing the 15 year minimum has been more than met. And we have a copy of the original building permit.
But suppose we had been cowed by officialdom and had no knowledgeable friends. Suppose we were very elderly, or uneducated, or, most likely of all, suppose we hadn’t known the current phone number of the previous owners.
“You’re not the first to receive this kind of letter,” the builder had said. “It seems to happen only in Prince William County.”
What would have happened if the barn, Phil’s beloved workshop, had had to be torn down?
“I would have set it on fire,” he angrily declared.
“That would have required a permit,” I laughed.
But our friend John was wiser. “You would have put out the fire with your tears,” he said