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Hunting for Right of Second Refusal

Federal, state and local officials clash in exchange of letters.

A disagreement between the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Alexandria City Council about the Hunting Creek area has boiled over into a series of letters. The problem stems from land owned by the department, which includes Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace. The Department of Transportation plans to sell the land, but who will be able to buy it is an open question.

Currently, the first right of refusal goes to Jack Kay, who owned the land before the department purchased it to facilitate construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. He has until March 1 to finalize the sale, but the city wants to have the option to purchase the property is Kay does not. There's only one problem: the Virginia Department of Transportation may decide to rescind the city's right to do so because of recent changes to the city's master plan and zoning regulations.

It started Sept. 19, when the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to the Department of Transportation expressing frustration with the city.

"Adoption of these zoning amendments could have a detrimental effect on the highest and best usage of the two properties and decrease their value significantly, which could considerably impact federal dollars that are intended to be used on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project," wrote Division Administrator Roberto Fonseca-Martinez. "We believe the proposed actions by the city are an attempt to interfere with the legitimate negotiations with the potential buyer, the previous owner."

On Sept. 19, the Virginia Department of Transportation sent a shot over the bow of the city government.

"As you are aware, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is currently negotiating the sale of these two properties in accordance with Virginia law, which requires that a fair market value be determined as the sale price," wrote Project Manager Ronaldo Nicholson. "City Council action just as we enter the sensitive, final period of negotiating the sale would be extremely untimely, unfair and disadvantageous to the region's taxpayers."

On Oct. 10, the city government struck back.

"The city disagrees with and is outraged by the elimination of its second right of refusal," wrote City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa. "The planning process is not a sham, nor was it designed to lower market value of those properties. To the contrary, the process has been conducted in an open, transparent and regular fashion, with ample opportunity for public input, under the procedures required by the City Charter and general law. VDOT knows that; VDOT participated in that process. FHWA could have but did not."

Pessoa argued that the federal official who accused the city government of wrongdoing was incorrectly speculating about the effect of the zoning change.

"In summary, the purported basis for such a recision is unfounded and unsupported. There is no basis for VDOT to rescind the city's right of second refusal, and such a recision will prove counterproductive to VDOT's goal of quickly selling the property at maximum value," Pessoa wrote. "VDOT should reconsider its decision to rescind that right and reinstate it."

City Councilman Andrew Macdonald disputed the idea that the Virginia Department of Transportation would get any less money because of the City Council's action.

"They're trying to squeeze an awful lot out of an orange that they've already stepped on," Macdonald said, adding that he thought the zoning changes would increase the value of the property. "I think we have every right to zone it in the best interests of Alexandria."

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, feelings about the issue were still raw. Mayor Bill Euille thanked the city attorney for writing the letter. "I wouldn't have been as polite," Mayor Euille said.