A controversial project that would have placed dozens of affordable housing units on a church’s property in the heart of Clarendon has been temporarily halted after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled the County Board violated its own zoning ordinance in approving the project two years ago.
In a unanimous decision the court overturned an earlier Circuit Court ruling in the county’s favor, potentially jeopardizing an innovative mixed-use development that would have rebuilt the historic First Baptist Church of Clarendon and incorporated a 10-story apartment building on the site.
In October 2004, the County Board granted the church permission to demolish its sanctuary and replace it with a smaller church and 116-unit apartment building — with more than half of the units designated as affordable. In order for the project to proceed, the County Board granted the church a special exemption to its zoning laws, allowing them to construct a building 40-feet taller than originally permissible.
A group of seven nearby residents sued the County Board, arguing that the five members had exceeded their authority by rezoning part of the church’s property.
EARLIER THIS MONTH the state Supreme Court rendered the zoning “void,” therefore preventing the project from continuing. In handing down an opinion, justice Cynthia D. Kinser wrote that the board’s “action was arbitrary and capricious, and not fairly debatable.”
Plaintiffs lauded the court for ensuring the county abides by its own zoning procedures.
“This sends an important signal to the county that they need to honor their own processes for how development decisions are made,” said Joan Rohlfing, one of the seven plaintiffs in the case.
Though county officials said they were disappointed in the outcome of the case, the highly technical reasoning for the decision means the project can still move forward following minor tweaks to the zoning ordinance.
“The decision did not in any way suggest the approval of this project is beyond the board’s inherent authority,” said County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac. “The only reason this decision was made was because of some unfortunate language in the ordinance. And that language can easily be removed.”
Church officials first generated the idea for mixed-use development on its property — located a half-block from the Clarendon Metro station — when they realized they could not afford to renovate the building on their own. As part of the agreement, the County Board approved a $4.5 million loan to offset the cost of construction.
Seventy of the 116 units in the 10-story building were to be designated affordable, with 64 of the units reserved for those making less than 60 percent of the area’s median income — approximately $52,000 a year.
An education building on the property that housed the Child Development Center, a private day-care center, was to be retained, along with the church’s steeple.
“This was a very creative project that would have provided a significant number of affordable housing units,” said County Board member Jay Fisette.
NOT EVERYONE IN the surrounding neighborhood saw it that way. Some nearby residents complained that the building was too many stories high, would overshadow adjacent homes and would drastically alter Clarendon’s skyline.
“It would definitely change the character of the neighborhood to put such a tall structure that sticks up like a sore thumb at a point where buildings are supposed to taper down,” said Rohlfing.
Others worried that the County Board would allow other high-rise buildings in the neighborhood if they weren’t challenged on this project.
“This would have set a precedent for other developers to say ‘you let them build 10 stories, now we want to build 10 stories,’” said Mary Renkey, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
Both Renkey and Rohlfing refute claims, made during the 2004 public hearing when the project was initially approved, that they filed suit because they did not want a building with low-income families in their neighborhood.
“We were happy to see affordable housing in the building across the street,” Rohlfing said. “We just wanted it in a package not as tall and dense.”
The County Board is currently determining what steps need to be taken to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said.
But the county can not take action on its own; the church would have to resubmit a plan for the property. Alan Stanford, the church’s senior pastor, and other church officials declined multiple interview requests.
County Board members said they hope the church will not be dissuaded from pursuing the project by the recent court ruling, stating their own interest in seeing the original plan come to fruition.
“I presume no change in the board’s interest in seeing this project built,” Fisette said. “Our affordable housing challenge has only gotten more severe in the intervening years.”