Second Thought: Wednesday, August 4, 2004
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Hitting an All-Masonry Wall

Folks might just build their non-boring houses somewhere besides Arlington.

By WARREN NORRED

I’d like to build an interesting modern home in Arlington, using concrete, steel, glass, lots of cable, and no evidence that the owners’ ancestry had anything to do with the Romans. Unfortunately, the Arlington City Council has done its best to outlaw such buildings. Recently established building standards require all residences to be 100 percent boring. Oops, I meant to write 100 percent "masonry."

This requirement was first considered to help deal with the proliferation of cheap tract housing. Somehow, the somewhat defensible idea that $60,000 homebuyers were not responsible enough to demand quality tract homes expanded to the indefensible idea that no one was responsible enough to demand quality homes, even millionaires planning 5,000-square-foot homes using custom builders.

During the discussions about this rule, one critical Zoning Board of Adjustment member pointed out a famous modern home worth millions of dollars that would not be able to be built in Arlington. To this, the bureaucrat responded, "People in Arlington don’t build that kind of house." (This planner is now working in Dallas, and we should be thankful.)

These aggravating rules don’t hinder only rich people trying to build zillion-dollar homes. Our newest Uniform Housing Code requires that all windows that might be used as fire exits have sills no higher than 44 inches off the floor. It also requires that fire detectors run off a single circuit breaker, which adds even more expense to remodel jobs.

These requirements may make some sense in new construction, but if you have an older home, there is a significant chance that your bedroom window sills are higher than 44 inches, and you don’t have wiring from a single circuit breaker to your smoke detectors. Your home is therefore a "substandard building." When a friend wanted to make an addition to his $140,000 home, thereby increasing its value to him and to the city, the city refused to allow the addition to be built unless he also lowered all of the windows in his masonry home to the required 44 inches, as well as making the electrical changes.

Since this would have added significant costs, no remodel job has been officially done, and no change in tax value has been made on the city rolls. I’m not sure what he or the city would do if the bureaucrats found out what he did, but I suspect it wouldn’t be nice for my friend.

Though the Chamber of Commerce and city staff have heard complaints that Arlington is a city difficult to work with, there are some businesses that don’t seem to have any problems, while others are run out of town. I found myself looking for a small second-hand appliance store a few years back that didn’t have a sign in front of it. When I finally found the place, the owner explained that he had a handmade sign in front of his place for a while, but the city staff told him that it was illegal because it was too large. He built the sign out of a three-foot-by-three-foot piece of wood, making it nine square feet. Signs of this type are only allowed to be eight square feet.

One might respond to that story by saying that the law is the law, but this doesn’t seem to be so. When I and some friends meet weekly at the Jason’s Deli on South Cooper, it has become a standard joke to point out the south window and say with a look of mock surprise, "Hey, did you guys know that the Parks Mall parking garage is open?"

The reason that this is funny is that there has been a temporary banner that says "Parks Mall Parking Garage Now Open" hanging from the building’s north side since it opened about two years ago.

I’m not sure if this sign is a "site circulation," "wall", or "directional traffic" sign, as city codes define them, but most regular people would call this a "grand opening" sign, which is allowed for up to 14 days. The Parks Mall sign has been up for about 700 days, give or take. Of course, there is always some possibility that the Parks Mall has some special permit that came with their tax abatement, the kind of deal not available to mundane and unconnected small businessmen.

If we want residents to stay here for their entire life, if we want more homegrown restaurant chains, and for more small businesses to thrive, then we have to stop deliberately making the lives of ordinary residents and beginning entrepreneurs so difficult. If we spent less time fawning over politically connected large businesses and more time fixing the mundane, infuriating rules that are strangling our citizens and businesses, our city would clearly be much easier to work and live in. With all the whining that we do about our home values, you’d think that we wouldn’t make laws to discourage owners from remodeling older homes or rich people from building new ones.

Warren Norred is an Arlington businessman and engineer who isn’t telling whether he replaced his water heater before or after a $25 permit was required.



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