Planning Commission Votes for Development

Planning Commission Votes for Development

Second Presbyterian site plan approved 6-0.

On the docket of the Alexandria Planning Commission it was listed as Oak Grove. But to those attending the public hearing in Council chambers, to those attending a public information session at Bishop Ireton High School in late winter and to those rallying on a March day, it is known as Second Presbyterian.

It has become the polarizing plot of land around which the city's open space debate has orbited for months. It consists of 6.1 acres at the intersection of Quaker and Janneys lanes.

Those in favor of city government making an estimated expenditure of approximately $7 million to purchase the site see it as a "once in a lifetime opportunity to have a nice urban park." Others question its priority status not only within an overall open space plan but also as a benefit to a majority of Alexandria citizens.

Last Thursday night the Commission was presented with a site plan by Elm Street Development, Inc., to build eight large homes on the site presently owned by National Capital Presbytery. Two lots, totalling approximately 1.1 acre, would be donated to the city for open space, according to the application.

Jeffrey Farner, Planning and Zoning Department, in his opening testimony, stated, "Staff has recommended approval of the application. It is a good site plan. We believe the two lots to be donated are consistent with the Open Space Plan."

As noted by Jonathan P. Rak, attorney for Elm Street Development, "The debate tonight is not about whether to purchase this site for open space or not. The issue tonight is, does this site plan meet the zoning requirements? We [the applicant] believe it does."

He also emphasized, "The main question is compatibility [of the proposed development] to the surrounding neighborhood. Two homes immediately adjacent to this property are even larger than the proposed homes.

"We believe this is a very high quality site plan, completely compatible with the neighborhood." Rak did admit that due to the topography of the site the new homes will be higher than other homes in the area because they will be "set on a hillside."

THE DEVELOPER HAS also agreed to place all new utilities underground. However, as Rak pointed out, "To place all existing power lines underground would cost well over $1 million."

Commissioner Donna Fossum asked what effect the approval of the site plan would have on the value of the land. City Attorney Ignacio B. Pessoa, answered, "In this case it has been determined not much as evaluated by the appraiser."

Those opposed to approving the site plan based their arguments on the fact that City Council was about to have a work session with the Open Space Steering Committee as to prioritization of various plots in the Open Space Plan. Therefore, they were requesting deferral.

In addition to a number of individual citizens and residents of the immediate area, they were supported by Alexandrians for Sensible Growth. Their position was summed up in a letter from Ginny Hines Parry, president, to the Commission which urged, "Please allow this process to proceed before you consider the development applications..."

Katy Cannady, an open space advocate, leading off the opposition, said, "To me open space is like pornography, you know it when you see it. But the real problem here is having houses on steroids plopped down in an area of older houses not on steroids."

Judy Durand, a Janneys Lane resident and one of the primary opposition organizers, noted, "We [those in opposition] have obtained a civil engineer to study the serious water and traffic problems."

Two arguments against development of the site, in addition to the loss of open space, advanced by those in opposition, is that there are inherent surface and underground water problems as well as traffic problems, on both Janneys and Quaker lanes, that will be exacerbated by new development.

Both at the Bishop Ireton information session and before the Planning Commission, Richard Baier, director, Transportation and Environmental Services Administration, pointed out that potential drainage and traffic problems are being addressed by the city.

"It is true that development increases the imperviousness of land. But we are developing a holding basin concept that will actually improve the [runoff] situation at this site," Baier said. He also claimed the proposed development would have little or no impact on traffic in the area.

Jack Sullivan, treasurer and past president, Seminary Hill Association, said, "The association supports the site plan. We believe the developer has gone a long way toward meeting our requests. And our parks seem to be increasingly used as dog walks or pooch playgrounds."

He urged the Commissioners to "leave this property in private hands." Sullivan also stressed, "Scrap the idea of a new stadium. Save the $6 million and use that money to buy green space." The stadium will "carve up valuable land" and pave it for a parking lot, according to Sullivan.

When asked how the association arrived at its decision to support the developer, after one speaker stated the membership had not be polled, Sullivan deferred to Joseph Fisher, an executive committee member of the association.

"We met with the developer. We talked with a variety of neighbors. And we talked with the Presbytery. The Presbytery came to the city and urged them to buy the property. They held bids open from others for several weeks. But the city did not respond. Our process took over a year and half," Fisher said. Seminary Hills Association was supported in their approval of the development proposal by the Taylor Run Citizens Association.

THE ORIGINAL PLAN of the Presbytery was to build a large church complex on the site. However, as the congregation dwindled at Alexandria Second Presbyterian Church the decision was made to sell the land. It was then National Capital Prebytery approached the former City Council concerning a possible purchase.

Judy Noritake, co-chair of the Open Space Steering Committee along with Eric Wagner, chair of the Planning Commission, explained, "It was our conclusion that the donation [of the two lots by Elm Street Development] satisfies the Open Space Plan. We believe the city should not purchase this site."

The only Commission member to speak out in favor of preserving the site for open space was Vice Chairman Richard Leibach, also a member of the Open Space Committee. "I believe this site should be acquired by the city and maintained as passive open space for use by all our citizens," he said.

"I have decided I have a conflict of interest on this because I have made up my mind about what should be done with this site. Therefore, I will abstain when it comes to the vote," Leibach announced.

"This is the same agonizing decision we always have with a large site. Neighbors usually do not want change. I think we have come to a reasonable balance here. I think an acre of park land is a wonderful gift to the city," Fossum acknowledged.

Commissioner J. Lawrence Robinson agreed, stating, "I think what we have before us here is an excellent development. I support this."

Wagner pointed out, "The reality is the Open Space Master Plan has had a major impact on this site. We have gotten an acre of land and we are adhering to the plan. We all should be very proud of this."

With that the Commission recommended the site plan for approval as submitted subject to conditions. It passed by a vote of 6-0 with Leibach abstaining.

THE OPEN SPACE PLAN also played heavily into discussions of another site plan proposal that was deferred at Tuesday night's regular meeting and redocketed for Thursday. The plot in question is located at the "northwest corner of Russell Road and Lloyds Lane."

Renaissance Custom Communities, LLC, proposes to build three large homes at 1900, 1904 and 1910 Russell Road, respectively. As noted by both the developer's attorney, Harry P. Hart, and planning staff, the plot has already been subdivided and building permits could be applied for without Planning Commission approval.

"Although this property is on a list of candidates for potential preservation, it is not identified as park land. It is already subdivided into three lots. They could get started tomorrow. The owner is coming to us on their own initiative. They don't need our approval," Wagner emphasized.

The primary argument from neighbors centered around positioning of the homes. As stated by several, "We support the plan for three homes, just not this plan." That was echoed by The North Ridge Citizens' Association in a letter to the Commission.

Many neighbors argued they had "very little opportunity for input." They were asking the Commission to defer its decision until that could be accomplished.

At the commencement of Thursday night's session, Planning and Zoning Department director, Eileen Fogarty, stated, "A special meeting of all concerned had been held on Wednesday. We considered all issues raised by the speakers, applicants and the Commission."

Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, Jr., urged neighbors and others in opposition to reconsider their appeal to Council. "The Commission, applicant and staff have tried to accommodate your requests," he stated. It was then approved unanimously.

Following the vote Leibach pointed out that this developer would not be required to make any contribution to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund because there were only three units proposed. The requirement of $1 per square foot of new construction be donated to the fund commences at five units.

He urged the Commission to go on record in favor of reducing that requirement to three units. Pessoa pointed out, "This is not part of zoning" but rather a responsibility of the Office of Housing Administration.

That office is working on new policy considerations to be reported to City Council in June, according to Leibach. He noted his recommendation would be "just a suggestion" to the City Manager as he works with the Office of Housing.

During the May 4 public hearing, Hart had stated, "The developer will make a voluntary contribution of $15,000 to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund." But, he stressed, "This is not a binding enforcement. It is purely voluntary."