Back To Court They Go

Back To Court They Go

The County Board is facing another lawsuit over a high-rise project.

The Arlington County Board is being sued by a group of local residents over a proposed high-rise building on a church’s property in Clarendon.

The suit is nearly identical to one that the Board was faced with, and which it ultimately lost, last year.

It concerns the First Baptist Church of Clarendon’s plans to build a 10-story apartment building on its property, located on Highland Street just north of Wilson Boulevard.

The apartment building would contain 116 units, 70 of which would have rents designated to be at affordable rates.

Mary Renkey, Bruce Ogden and Joan Rohlfing, three residents of the Lyon Village neighborhood next to the church, are suing the County Board on the grounds that the building’s height violates the county’s own zoning ordinance.

Their lawyer, Gifford Hampshire, said that the Board’s approval of the project last February was "arbitrary and capricious" because the zoning rules are in place to protect residential neighborhoods from encroachment by commercial or industrial buildings.

"This protection has been very important to residents of Lyon Village who live on the fringe of residential and commercial areas," Hampshire said.

Renkey also said that this change in zoning rules could have far-reaching effects because it sets a precedent for future changes elsewhere.

"When the county changed the zoning ordinance they were telling the public that it would only affect this site… but we knew it wasn't true," she said.

Arlington County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

WHEN THE CHURCH first proposed the project to the County Board in 2004, the Board approved it despite vocal objections from Lyon Village residents.

In its initial approval, the Board cited the affordable housing units as posing an overwhelming benefit to Arlington, which has seen housing costs skyrocket in the past five years.

Shortly after the project’s approval in 2004, a group of Lyon Village residents sued the county, claiming that the First Baptist Church of Clarendon project was illegal.

The residents lost in Circuit Court but appealed their case to the Virginia Supreme Court. Late last year, the Supreme Court sided with the residents and reversed the Circuit Court’s decision.

Undeterred, in late February the County Board approved a modified version of the First Baptist project which they, during the approval process for the project, said addressed the Supreme Courts complaints.

Less than a month later, the Lyon Village residents sued again.

"[They County Board has] never come to us and tried to work anything out," Renkey said. "I think it's just so sad that my elected officials are treating the community the way they are."

The case is currently pending in Arlington County Circuit Court. The County Board has filed a motion to dismiss the case and a hearing is set on July 11 to determine whether the lawsuit will move forward.

BOTH SIDES OF THIS legal battle have invested large amounts of money, time and energy arguing their positions.

Mark Weinress, president of the Lyon Village Civic Association, said that $100,000 was raised for their current lawsuit in the three weeks following the Board’s approval of the project.

"We raised over $20,000 in one meeting," he said, "And we did not even advertise that we were going to ask for money at that meeting."

Weinress added that his civic association contributed $5,000 to the plaintiffs’ legal fund.

"People are upset with the county and they gave us money," Renkey said.

The County Board is also digging in for a fight on this issue. Hampshire said that the Board has hired private lawyers to supplement MacIsaac’s representation, something they did not do for the first lawsuit in 2004.

Hampshire would not comment on whether the plaintiffs are prepared to take their case to the Supreme Court again should the Circuit Court reject them once more.

But Weinress said that "It’s very likely that this will go back to the Supreme Court."

He added that, "There are problems in Circuit Court [when] you are suing people who are part of the Arlington County government. It’s just like any other politics."