To the Editor:
The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) marathon meeting on April 12 was a textbook perfect picture of collaborative decision-making at its best — equitable and obliging. It was a symphony of diverse voices and views that blended the expertise, opinions, and facts, from all major stakeholders — except those east of Union. It resounded with concerns of everyone in the room.
Board members, lawyers, citizens, and city staff each keenly listened, especially as the night wore on into morning, and none of us knew what the final outcome would be. Each had done their best in presenting their positions. No single group dominated, no single party attempted to assert control, and in the end all the cards were on the table — in plain view and often in plain language.
It was my pleasure last night to watch the rebroadcast and see that, indeed, it was an extremely well done process. The task before the Board of Zoning Appeals, a citizen board appointed by the city, was to consider whether or not to overturn the planning director’s decision that a protest petition, filed by residents regarding the zoning changes for the waterfront plan, was invalid. This decision enabled the Jan. 21 vote on the waterfront plan/text amendment; however, a super majority vote had not been achieved. A vote of this type was created to ensure that the outcome of grave decisions such as the rebuilding that would significantly increase the density of the riverside in Old Town would not radically change the character, property value, or the quality of life of residents. The hearing at the BZA was essentially an important opportunity for citizens to enjoy a lengthy dialogue with the city and others outside a court of law.
Taking the first step to push complex multistakeholder issues into the courts often results in a flowering of related legal cases, when each group sees its position denied. This presents great opportunity and gain for lawyers but little for citizens or their elected officials, who can be whiplashed around by competing interests. Narrow legal arguments and tactical maneuvers abound as the heart of the issue crusts over in a festering shell. This is a well-documented phenomenon in the mediation literature. For example, in Memphis, where the court route was taken, as commercial development was favored over that of history and the environment, the riverfront has become a portrait of unfinished business. Competing stakeholder visions have resulted in delay and cost overruns.
We are at a pivotal point right now. The BZA’s opinion opened the way for everyone to take a deep breath and sit down together at the table to craft a viable and equitable shared vision. Putting all the landowners or their representatives at the same table with citizens and the city is essential — they all have a stake in this matter and should all directly hear what the other has to say. As the BZA meeting clearly demonstrated the people of Alexandria are smart, flexible, determined and in statements at the open session at City Hall voiced their strong willing to help craft a good deal — for everyone.
Old Town residents accept the expense of maintaining historic properties because of the quality of life in Old Town — small, friendly, with a view of nature, supporting and supported by a network of diverse merchants in pocket-sized places. Dramatically increased density could radically change the character of Old Town — its spillover will stress the resources of an already densely built historic town. Only by putting all interested parties at the table. Together can we achieve a viable future: small scale, low density, environmentally friendly, and reflective of the historic districts’ cultural heritage and continuing expression through the arts. Nobody loses and we get a better end result — for the cost of a couple hundred sandwiches, lots of coffee, and the time and intelligence that each could dedicate.
The meeting can be found on the city’s web site: http://alexandria.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=34. It is a tour de force in collaborative decision-making. Tune it in, if you have the time to sit back with a pitcher of ice-tea and your favorite snack food — and enjoy democratic process at its best.