Leavell House Owner Withdraws McMansion Plan

By Ross Hunter

In a landmark test for Georgetown, following a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment on Tuesday, December 15th, the historic Leavell House at 803 College Street will not now encroach upon its property line setbacks, thus avoiding the “McMansion” effect feared by neighbors.

The 130-year old mansion can be seen from the Square at the eastern visible end of Eighth Street. Todd Cox, its new owner, on city staff’s advice applied to the Board for a special exception to the UDC allowing a proposed addition to encroach on setbacks along two neighboring property lines. At the hearing, in response to neighborhood opposition, Mr. Cox graciously elected to withdraw his request.

The neighborhood came out in force in a show against McMansion-style redevelopment. I would guess that close to 20 people signed up to speak. After about a dozen residents had spoken against the plan, and with several more waiting their turn, Mr Cox took the floor to say that he had not intended to make all his neighbors angry. He formally withdrew his request and said he would go back to the drawing board to devise a conforming plan.

In welcoming Mr. Cox to the neighborhood I hope he will talk to his neighbors as well as city staff with his next undertaking, because he may get better advice. City staff didn’t serve any of us well in this issue. The staff analysis recommending Board approval was deeply flawed, with many inconsistencies of fact and reasoning. Several points were challenged by speakers.

As one example, the proposed addition was designed from convenience rather than from any other reason, and UDC Section 4.09.040.B.1 unambiguously compels the Board to deny an exception in such circumstances, in a clear disapproval of “building to the boundaries” without good reason. This was one of many points included in the staff analysis that inexplicably failed to show staff in advance that Mr. Cox had no case.

More open communication from staff could have saved a lot of effort and anguish for both Mr Cox and the neighborhood. I have great respect for what staff members achieve, but when they get sloppy they hurt us all. They place great hardship on the neighborhood when citizens have to drop everything and rush into a counter-analysis.

After all, in a political system filled with volunteer effort, staff members are the only people getting paid. Taxpayers have a right to expect performance that represents the whole community. My message to all city staff for the new year is, you can’t go wrong if you always remember to check with the community along the way.


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