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Waterfront Politics Unfold in the Courtroom and on the Campaign Trail

Three separate lawsuits still moving forward as mayoral campaign heats up.

The Alexandria waterfront plan increases density from the existing 300,000 square feet of development to 800,000 square feet of redevelopment.

The Alexandria waterfront plan increases density from the existing 300,000 square feet of development to 800,000 square feet of redevelopment. Courtesy of the Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning

Three Waterfront Lawsuits

  • Iron Ladies: The trio of women who filed a lawsuit against the city has become known as the “Iron Ladies,” April Burke, Marie Kux and Beth Gibney. During the January public hearing on the waterfront plan, they tried to file an appeal of Planning Director Faroll Hamer’s rejection of a protest petition against the plan. In court, the Iron Ladies have argued that the appeal should have prevented the public hearing from moving forward. Circuit Court Judge Jim Clark agreed, and now the trio is trying to get the Virginia Supreme Court to hear their case. A 10-minute hearing on the issue is expected in Richmond later this year.
  • BZA Ruling: In a late-night meeting, the Alexandria Board of Zoning Appeals ruled a group of citizens who filed a protest petition should have been able to force a supermajority vote on the City Council to approve the waterfront plan. That decision could have drastic consequences because the final decision fell one vote shy of being a supermajority. That’s why the city is appealing the ruling of its own Board of Zoning Appeals. A court hearing has been set in March, and motions are expected to be heard in October.
  • Boat Club Lawuit: In May, the Virginia Supreme Court remanded a case back to the Alexandria Circuit Court involving the right of the Old Dominion Boat Club to use Wales Alley. The city has leased part of the alley to a restaurant, which has installed tables and chairs, but the Boat Club is arguing in court that they have a historic right to use the alley. A hearing is expected later this year.

For those keeping score in the ongoing war over the Alexandria waterfront, opponents have scored one major victory and supporters have scored one major victory. Another skirmish ended in a draw. That leaves the debate about the future of the waterfront at the center of Alexandria’s politics just as campaign season heats up.

“I don’t think you just stop progress by just stopping everything and waiting,” said Mayor Bill Euille, one of the chief supporters of the plan who is currently seeking reelection. “And so my position right now is to continue to move forward.”

That includes hearing a proposal by Carr Hospitality, which is seeking to use the new plan to build a hotel at the intersection of Duke Street and The Strand. On the campaign trail, the waterfront plan and the Carr proposal have become a major point of contention between Euille and his opponent, former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald. For more than a year, Macdonald had been leading the fight against the waterfront plan and is now ready to take the issue to voters in November.

“I think the mayor and I strongly disagree on what is meant by progress in Alexandria from a big picture point of view, whether it be on the West End or Potomac Yard or on the waterfront,” said Macdonald. “This plan hasn’t received enough of the approval of the community, so it’s not progress in that sense.”

IN THE COURTROOM, much of the debate centers around a ruling by Planning Director Faroll Hamer to reject a protest petition the day City Council members approved the waterfront plan in January. The protest petition is a way for property owners near a proposed development to force a supermajority vote, so opponents began collecting signatures. But after all the signatures had been collected — using an antique piece of equipment known as a planimeter, as required by city code — Hamer rejected the protest as invalid because council members were voting on a “text amendment” as opposed to a “map amendment.” She also rejected an appeal of her decision during the public hearing, which opponents say should have prevented the vote. That’s a ruling that’s now being challenged in court by a group of women who have become known as the “Iron Ladies.”

“We are questioning the logic that she can decide whether or not to accept an appeal when you are trying appealing her decision,” said Roy Shannon, who is representing the women in court. “It’s like saying, ‘Before I file an appeal with the court, are you OK with me suing you?’”

In the Alexandria Circuit Court, Judge Jim Clark agreed with the city — in part because the opponents could always move forward with a case in the Board of Zoning Appeals. That’s exactly what happened in a late-night meeting that offered a surprise victory to opponents. Members of the board criticized the city’s distinction between a “map amendment” and a “text amendment” as a technicality used to prevent citizens from voicing legitimate concerns. Now the city is taking the unusual step of challenging its own Board of Zoning Appeals in Circuit Court.

“We believe that they incorrectly read and applied the law,” said City Attorney James Banks. “The legal standards that they used were incorrect.”

NOW EACH SIDE is seeking an appeal — the city in Circuit Court and opponents in the Virginia Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a case filed by the Old Dominion Boat Club has been remanded back to the Circuit Court. Back in May, the Supreme Court ruled that a visiting judge sidestepped a central question in a case brought by the club against the city involving Wales Alley. The city currently leases the alley to a restaurant, which has installed tables and chairs. Members of the Boat Club say they have a historic right to use the alley to move their boats to the waterfront, and now the Circuit Court has been ordered to consider the issue on its merits.

“The easement doesn’t just disappear into thin air,” said Boat Club attorney David Chamowitz during the Supreme Court oral arguments. “This is condemnation by other means.”

Caught in the middle of the dispute are the residents of Old Town who will have to live with the consequences of new development and developers who are eager to break ground. Carr Hospitality has already warned city officials that it has prepared plans to develop a smaller-scale residential unit “by right” if the new zoning fails to materialize. That puts the legal and political debate about the waterfront back into the forefront.

“These are inherently complex cases, and I think there are people who try to take advantage of the complexity of it to confuse and obfuscate,” said Banks, declining to give examples. “I’m not trying to cast aspersions, but I think there are those who I think intentionally try to confuse, and I’ll leave it at that.”

On the other side of the argument, opponents of the waterfront plan feel that they are fighting a city that has seemingly endless resources. They believe that they will eventually prevail in court, which could lead to a reconsideration of the plan and how it would work. After scoring a loss in the Circuit Court, they feel the Board of Zoning Appeals ruling has created a new sense of momentum for their cause.

“Winning at the BZA was a big victory for us to the extent that the citizens oversight board realized what the director was doing,” said Shannon. “It’s more difficult to overturn something like that on appeal.”