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After failing in a Hail Mary legal challenge to force preservation of land surrounding Rouse’s razed estate on Wilson Boulevard, some activists are now considering taking their cases to the legislature.
On July 16, a Circuit Court judge bluntly dismissed a challenge to Arlington County Council’s actions related to the property, saying the plaintiff – Arlington Green Party leader John Reeder – did not lacked the legal capacity to challenge the decision in court.
Judge Louise DiMatteo hinted that the public’s appeal, if they were not satisfied with the county council’s decision, was at the polls and not at the courthouse.
In April, members of the county’s board of directors rejected a recommendation by the Historic Affairs and Sites of Interest Review Board (HALRB) that the property should be covered with a local historic designation. The vote only came after the county board members, willingly or not (and they indeed knew exactly what they were doing), gave the owner of the property enough time to secure demolition permit for the main house and outbuildings from the beginning of the 20th century.
The court’s decision was likely inevitable, as Virginia law grants landowners extremely strong rights and, in many cases, also gives local governments powerful powers to interpret and enforce their own rules and policies – like those that have sued unsuccessfully to prevent the name change of the school board from Washington-Lee High School can attest to this.
While Reeder was unhappy with DiMatteo’s decision, he directed most of his shots at the local government.
“Our county council bowed to the money and the developers,” he said in an email to those who supported the lawsuit. “County board members simply saw more development, more luxury homes, and more wealthy people moving in as their goal. They don’t care about our past history, culture, and unique history as a major area of Civil War in the 1860s. They see no value in nearly 10 acres of open land with mature trees, shrubs and vegetation as a park open to all for recreation.
Reeder suggested that preservation advocates could continue to champion their cause, seeking to allow greater public input into preservation decisions, when the General Assembly meets in Richmond in 2022.
But the issue could turn into local political football before that, as independent county council candidate Audrey Clement appears to be making it the cornerstone of her long-term attempt to topple outgoing Democratic County Council member Takis Karantonis.
“If the public is unhappy with the cavalier manner in which [the] The county council got rid of much of its legacy of the civil war and the brutal way the Circuit Court extinguished its legal rights, and then it can elect new leaders, ”said Clement, making echo of the court decision, in an email to supporters. “I think Arlington needs public servants who honor rather than denigrate the rights of its citizens.”
(Independents Michael Cantwell and Adam Theo also challenge Karantonis in November. Republicans did not field a candidate in the race.)
In late January, HALRB determined that the 9-acre property met requirements for a historic district, sending the case to the planning commission and county council for decision. This HALRB recommendation came over strong objections from the owner – a trust representing the family of the late Randy Rouse – who wanted nothing to do with preservation.
The historic designation application was filed in the spring of 2020 by Tom Dickinson, who is active in the Arlington Historical Society and preservation circles.
The Historic District Ordinance allows for such third-party applications, but it had been three decades since the Arlington government had imposed a Historic District over an owner’s objections. And given the aggressive stance taken by the estate’s powerful legal team, the members of the board of directors and the county attorney seemed reluctant to provoke a legal battle they believed they would end up losing.
And so, critics argue, county council members have stuck in an effort to shirk responsibility for deciding one way or another.
These critics seem to be right.
County council members could have held a public hearing on the recommendation of the HALRB in early March, before the Rouse estate received demolition permits from the local government bureaucracy. But by the time the measure finally reached the county council platform in April, the buildings had been leveled and council members wrung their hands but said, in essence, that was it.
The Rouse parcel, which is likely to be sold for development, is located at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North McKinley Road. This is what remains of 26 acres of land bought by sportsman Randy Rouse in the 1950s. Rouse owned it until his death at the age of 100 in 2017; his widow resided in the main house until recently.
While some use the name Rouse to refer to the property, Conservatives and the county government seem to prefer “Febrey-Lothrop,” which is reminiscent of the families who owned the land in the 19th century.