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Letter: Getting ‘By Right’ Right

— To the Editor:

Once again we are hearing the myth, convenient for developers and City Council incumbents, past and present, that Small Area Plans like Beauregard and the one proposed for the Alexandria Waterfront, are necessary.

Without them, so goes the myth, developers can run amuck doing anything they please under the rubric of “By Right.”

“By Right” means residual rights which any property owner possesses at a comparatively low density and with a use as specified in the controlling Small Area Plan — for example: housing where housing is an acceptable use in the plan, or commercial where commercial is acceptable.

Not one inch of land within our city limits is outside a Small Area Plan. These plans are the basis of our zoning law.

At the Sept. 12 forum, candidates invoked the threat of “By Right” at least three times as justification for new and controversial Small Area Plans which open the way for high-density development.

What is never mentioned is that when no “appropriate” Small Area Plan exists, a Special Use Permit is still needed for any significant development, even under “By Right.” That means, of course, that City Council has to examine each project on a case-by-case basis — inconvenient but not necessarily a bad idea. Councilors have to stand up and be counted in each case.

Without an “appropriate” Special Use Permit, “By Right” does not authorize the level of development needed to justify a major investment, and larger parcels of land here always represent a major investment.

In the absence of a new and more friendly Small Area Plan, developers’ borrowing costs will be higher, and the value of the land they are investing in will be lower.

That is why all, repeat all, of Alexandria’s recently approved or currently proposed Small Area Plans have been driven by developer interests, despite their unpopularity with many residents.

Think about it — why would the development community be so heartily in favor of “appropriate” Small Area Plans — and spend so much time influencing their design — if they could already do anything they want to under “By Right”?

If anyone can point out a case where by “By Right” has been the basis of major development in Alexandria, please let’s examine it.

Robert Pringle

Alexandria