Historic Overlay Districts and Architectural Review Board (ARB) - FAQ's

Frequently Asked Questions


What are Historic Overlay Districts? Top of page

In 1969, the Virginia Legislature enabled Fairfax County to amend its Zoning Ordinance to better protect areas, sites, and buildings that meet recognized standards of architectural and historic significance. Subsequent Zoning Ordinance amendments established Historic Overlay Districts that provide regulations over and above the regular zoning protection for such areas. To administer the provisions, the County created a local Architectural Review Board (ARB). The ARB is responsible for the public interest(s) as embodied in the Historic Overlay District Ordinance. Its job is to protect and enhance the resources that give a district its historic, architectural, or archaeological significance. Quoting directly from Section 7-201 of the Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance:

Historic Overlay Districts are created for the purpose of promoting the general welfare, education, economic prosperity, and recreational pleasure of the public, through the identification, preservation, and enhancement of those buildings, structures, neighborhoods, landscapes, places, and areas that have special historical, cultural, architectural, or archaeological significance... and which have been officially designated by the Board of Supervisors.

Fairfax County has 13 Historic Overlay Districts that were created between 1970 and 1986. They include mills, churches, historic homes, Civil War fortifications, archaeological sites and a unique planned community. 

How are Historic Overlay Districts established? Top of page

Historic Overlay Districts are established when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopts an amendment to the County’s Zoning Ordinance. Any citizen, neighborhood organization, or County agency may propose establishing a district, which may consist of a single property or group of related properties. First, recommendations in the form of a research and planning report are prepared by professional staff of the Department of Planning and Zoning. The report is reviewed by the Fairfax County History Commission and Architectural Review Board, then forwarded to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors for public hearings and final action.

Historic Overlay Districts usually include more than just the historic "core" and that is why the ARB reviews plans for new development as well as changes to existing properties within the district. This is because historic buildings or sites lose their cultural and aesthetic significance to the citizens of the County -- and economic value to owners -- if inappropriate changes are made to either the building or its environs. Even if the property is owned by a public agency, a private preservation organization, or a sympathetic and knowledgeable private individual, it may be vulnerable if, for example, nearby development blocks a view or poorly designed buildings are constructed next door. 

Who serves on the Architectural Review Board? Top of page

The ARB, is composed of ten County residents who have a demonstrated knowledge of and interest in the preservation of historic buildings, structures, and sites. Members are appointed by the Board of Supervisors and serve for terms of three years. By ordinance, two members must be registered architects, one a landscape architect, and one a lawyer. Other members must represent related professions such as archaeology, history, and real estate, while one non-voting member is a representative of the Fairfax County History Commission.

In addition to bringing their own professional expertise to the ARB, members are required to attend annual statewide and regional training sessions on historic architecture, design review procedures, and historic preservation issues. Staff of the County’s Department of Planning and Zoning are responsible for supporting and administering the work of the ARB. 

What is the ARB Review Process? Top of page

As required by the Zoning Ordinance, all applications for rezoning, special exceptions, special permits, variances, sign permits, or other construction permits, as well as all site plans, subdivision plats, and grading plans for properties within Historic Overlay Districts, must be submitted to the ARB for review. The ARB’s recommendations are then forwarded to the appropriate County agencies for their review and implementation.

While the ARB plays an advisory role in the broader development review processes listed above, specific ARB approval is required before a sign permit may be issued by the Zoning Administrator or a building permit issued by the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES).

Only certain exterior alterations, generally ones that require a building permit, are the alterations that need approval from the Architectural Review Board. Interior alterations do not require approval. To paraphrase the county Zoning Ordinance:

ARB approval shall be required prior to the issuance of Building Permits for the following:

A. erection, construction, reconstruction, or exterior rehabilitation, remodeling, alteration or restoration of any building or structure in a Historic Overlay District;
B. for the demolition, razing, relocation, or moving of any building or structure in a Historic Overlay District.

ARB approval shall not be required prior to issuance of Building Permits for the following:

A. interior alteration of any building or structure in a Historic Overlay District;
B. additions to buildings and structures or for accessory structures when such proposed development is not visible from the public right-of-way or a contributing or historic property within a Historic Overlay District; or
C. re-roofing and re-siding of non-contributing buildings or structures within a Historic Overlay District when the replacement roofing or siding is similar in color, material and texture to that which is being replaced.

The ARB usually meets on the second Thursday of each month to review formal applications and, if time permits, to hold informal "workshop" discussions with owners or their architects on any other proposals presented. Drawings, plans, photographs, and other documents required to help with this review can be simple or detailed depending on the scale and complexity of a proposal. Specific questions on what may be required can be answered by DPZ staff. For a proposal to be placed on the agenda, a property owner should contact staff at least two weeks in advance of the next ARB meeting. 

How long does this process take? Top of page

The time frame for ARB approval depends upon factors such as the complexity of the project, clarity of the project information presented to the ARB and the potential impact of the project on the historic properties in the HOD. Some projects can be reviewed and approved at one meeting with the ARB; other projects could take two or three meetings. 

Is there an application fee? Top of page

No, there is no ARB application fee. 

My subdivision already has an architectural design committee. Do I still need approval from the county's Architectural Review Board? Top of page

Yes, but only for exterior alterations that require a building permit. 

What are the responsibilities of a property owner in a Historic Overlay District? Top of page

To successfully undertake a rehabilitation project or to construct something new in an appropriate manner requires three actions. First, an owner should understand why a building or site was built or used, why it looks the way it does, and what features contribute to its special appearance and to the district’s visual quality. Second, the owner should determine what needs to be done and how to do it in a way that protects and adds to the historic or visual quality of the property and district. And, third, the owner should realize that these first two steps require a lot of homework and, in most cases, reliance on experienced design professionals, particularly architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers who are sensitive to the impact of the proposed work on the character of the Historic Overlay District. 

My property was built after the Historic Overlay Districts were created, why do I have to present exterior alterations of my property to the Architectural Review Board? Top of page

The intent of the 1969 Zoning Ordinance was to protect the historic resources within the Historic Overlay Districts. The overlay zoning helps to protect against inappropriate uses, changes and additions that could damage the historic resources and your property values. In reviewing projects, the ARB takes into consideration factors such as whether the alterations are proposed to be made to a non-historic property, the distance the project is from the historic resource, the visibility from the historic resource, and the impact the project may have on the character and integrity of the HOD. 

When should the design and review process begin? Top of page

While formal review and approval is required by ordinance, the sooner that a property owner brings a proposal to the ARB’s attention the better. This is true even if the initial review is on an informal basis. As a first step, the owner of any property located within a Historic Overlay District should request such an informal review of proposed work by the ARB. Usually, this is done in a "workshop session" at a regular ARB meeting. The purpose of this is to help property owners to better understand the ARB’s guidelines and how the ARB will review the project. It is best to do this early in the planning process. This opportunity for a preliminary review serves two purposes. First, inappropriate changes that would detract from the historic or visual character of the property or the district can be avoided and alternative suggestions made. Second, property owners can avoid the disappointment, as well as additional cost and lost time, associated with changing detailed plans "in mid-stream." 

I'm concerned that the ARB will deny my proposal. How often does the ARB often deny a proposal? Top of page

The ARB routinely works with property owners to find design solutions that protect the historic resources and character of the HOD as mandated by the Zoning Ordinance and encourage property uses which will lead to the continuance, conservation and improvement of the HOD. Sometimes that could mean revising architectrual style or details to reduce the mass and scale, using a certain type or amount of landscaping or adjusting the site layout of the project. The ARB has gone years without denying a project. During project review, the ARB may suggest certain elements be re-examined. This may mean changes to the project since it was first proposed.

What guidelines does the ARB follow? Top of page

The ARB review process does not rely on individual member’s "taste." Rather, the underlying principle is to protect and enhance those properties and neighborhoods that have been designated as Historic Overlay Districts by the Board of Supervisors. To do this in an objective way, the ARB has adopted guidelines that they follow to determine the appropriateness of new construction or other changes that they are asked to consider. These are based on the following principles as summarized from the County’s Zoning Ordinance:

  • Use a building or other structure for its original purpose or one that requires minimal changes.
  • Avoid removing historic features that give character to a building or site.
  • Don't create a false sense of history by making something look older than it really is.
  • Preserve changes that have occurred to a building during different periods of time.
  • Protect distinctive examples of craftsmanship, finishes, and materials.
  • Repair rather than replace missing features; if necessary, replace them based on actual evidence, not guesswork.
  • Clean building surfaces by using the gentlest means possible.
  • Protect and preserve archaeological resources that may be affected by a project.
  • Design new additions and new buildings to be compatible with the scale and features of historic structures in the district.
  • Construct additions and other changes in a way that will protect the historic form or fabric of a building if they are removed in the future.
  • Plan site and landscape improvements to complement, not harm, historic structures or sites. 
How do I get more information? Top of page

For additional information on the County’s Historic Overlay Districts and the work of the Architectural Review Board, contact:

Planning Division
Department of Planning and Zoning
Herrity Building, 7th Floor, Suite 730
12055 Government Center Parkway
Fairfax, Virginia 22035

Office hours: Weekdays between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
Phone: 703-324-1380, TTY 711

Copies of the planning reports prepared for the Bull Run Stone Bridge, Centreville, Huntly, Lake Anne Village Center, Langley Fork, and Mount Air Historic Overlay Districts are available from the Department of Planning and Zoning at the above address.


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