Department of Planning and Development

703-324-1380 TTY 711
12055 Government Center Pkwy, Suite 730
Fairfax, VA 22035
Daniel White
ARB Administrator

Historic Overlay Districts and Architectural Review Board (ARB) - FAQs

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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. 

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. 

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 Development. 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. 

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. 

No, there is no ARB application fee. 

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

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. 

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." 

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. 

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. 

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.

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 Development
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 Development at the above address.

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