Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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A vacant lot and an adjoining home bear noteworthy “for sale–contract pending” signs where Military Road meets the road to Chain Bridge.

After a scheduled mid-July settlement, that property in my boyhood neighborhood of Rivercrest will be the site of “real nice homes,” I’m told by agent Timothy Clasen of RE-MAX Allegiance.

The buyers know well that this lot in 1969 was cause of a national debate over property rights and conformity.

The sliver of land left over after the fancy subdivision rose up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was originally part of a 10,000-acre tract used by the state for widening Glebe Road. As I reported for the Yorktown High School newspaper in 1970, Arlington County authorized architect Brockhurst Eustice to buy the remaining 6,000 square feet for $5,000 to build a customized home.

Private, maintenance-free, with a beautiful view,” was his plan for the skylighted, unpainted wood paneled two-cube home connected by a passageway. Construction began in April 1969.

But five couples, led by next-door neighbors John and Florence Binford, complained. “It looked like a couple of boxcars with a corridor in between,” Florence told me decades later. “Every time I stepped out of my house, I had to look at this big wall with no windows.”

In Arlington Circuit Court, neighbors cited a covenant requiring homes to be “in harmony in exterior construction and design.”  This “peculiar structure” devalued nearby homes, an appraiser said.  The subdevelopment’s covenants “should maintain the values of the community, and the county ceased to do so when they granted Eustice the building permit.” Furthermore, opponents said, Eustice had failed to consult the subdivision’s Architectural Control Committee.

Neighbor William Gapcynski told Life magazine his goal was to “retain the very pleasant, beautiful nature of Rivercrest,” so the “only remedy” was to tear the oddity down.

Not all Rivercrestians agreed. Realtor Rosemarie Rintels said a vacant, unkempt lot next door would do more devaluing than would Eustice’s creation.

“The neighbors kind of snuck up on me, and if I’d known, I might not have proceeded,” Eustice told me in the 1990s (he had moved to a farmhouse in Fairfax). The subdivision boasted an architectural review committee, but it had never met, “so I had no one to tell my side of the story.”

Arlington Circuit Court Judge Charles Russell sided with the miffed neighbors, halting construction before Eustice installed lighting or appliances. He ruled that as an architect, Eustice should have been aware of covenants’ enforceability. During Eustice’s appeals, the story drew coverage in Time magazine, the International Herald Tribune and Huntley-Brinkley.

The Washington Post expressed sympathy that Eustice “has tried to build something different in a neighborhood where conformity seems to have greater value than ingenuity.” Both the Binfords and Eustice received letters from around the country, and the case was debated in law journals.

H. Rutherford Turnbull III in the 1971 Wake Forest Law Review called Russell’s ruling “one of the most outrageous case of judicial meddling and misconstruction of residential covenants.”

In September 1971, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected Eustice’s appeal. In 1972, he was forced to tear down his $30,000 investment. He sold the lot to the Binfords.

Arlington setbacks laws have since loosened, “At the time, there was a principle at stake,” Eustice said later. “But I’ve mellowed over the years.”

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Two fine Arlington families made plans last Saturday to host birthday parties for their two-year-olds. Both invited family and friends to Parkhurst Park, but neither reserved the pavilion.

Did they fight? I watched as the two hosts warmed to one another, dividing use of the serving tables.

The strangers of all ages mingled—they even joined in separately timed renditions of “Happy Birthday.” A little boy thanked one hostess for inviting him to the other kid’s party.