At the request of council members Mike Polychrones and George Lovelace, the Town Council renewed a discussion about building height limitations in residential areas at its work session Monday night. Concerns revolved around the potential flexibility in current limitations that is allowed by relatively unrestrictive regulations on grading. The discussion appears to be far from over.
Vienna already has stricter height regulations than any surrounding jurisdictions, allowing a maximum building height of 35 feet, including no more than two and a half stories. The height is measured "from the average elevation of the finished lot grade at the front of the building to the highest point of the roof," according to the Town Code.
However, as Department of Public Works engineer Holly Chu said, there is no explicit limit on grading height. "If you finish your house, and it turns out, oops, it's 36 feet high, you just throw a foot of dirt on there, and you're OK," said Chu. She noted that grading is only regulated as to whether it might create storm runoff issues on surrounding lots.
"You could basically build a mountain," said Councilmember Laurie Cole, "and, as long as you put a moat around it so there's no runoff ...."
Chu noted that limits on grading can be problematic because some houses need to be elevated to alleviate flooding problems.
Polychrones said he did not see how grading could be increased beyond four or five feet without creating the sort of runoff issues that the town prohibits. "You can only play that cheat game so far," he said.
"What does the market want to see built here?" asked Councilmember Edythe Kelleher. She noted that further restrictions on height could drive builders away if tall buildings are what homeowners want.
Councilmember Dan Dellinger agreed. "For us to say, 'You can't build homes like that in Vienna,' will leave Vienna by the wayside," he said.
Nonetheless, stricter attention will have to be paid to grading changes, said Cole. "We are going to have to have the will and the wherewithal to say, 'No, you can't just put in a retaining wall. You're going to have to lower that roof,'" she said.
Mayor Jane Seeman readily agreed.
The discussion will continue at a later date. "We will soldier on," quipped Planning and Zoning Director Greg Hembree.