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Letter: Intellectual Dishonesty

— To the Editor:

Sometime this spring, the City of Alexandria’s appeal of the decision of its own council-appointed Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) will be heard in Circuit Court. So far the city has spent $18,000 on outside legal counsel for this appeal. That probably represents only a small portion of the eventual bill for services. During the appeal hearing, the city’s outside counsel will say that the city’s appointed representatives on the BZA misinterpreted the law, overlooked important facts and did various other bad things. The city has refused to hire any counsel for its own volunteer board members. They will stand accused and have no one to defend them. What a thank you for serving on a city board.

The mayor and his council colleagues say they must do this because the BZA upheld a citizen protest petition and this shows the need to “clarify” the language in the city charter with respect to protest petitions. The protest petition language, however, is imminently clear. It allows a percentage of affected land-owners adjacent to any development to trigger a super majority requirement for approving zoning changes affecting them. The protest is an honored method of minority protection expressed in the founding principles and legal system of United States law.

It is likely the true intent of the city attorney and mayor to eliminate the protest petition entirely from the city charter, and do so in a way that appears to make the court responsible. This would ensure what Mayor Euille described as “the ability of the City Council to make decision on future development projects throughout this city.” Blocking the BZA legal defense and paying tens of thousands of dollars for outside legal assistance is certainly worth that to the mayor.

In a larger context, the effort to overturn the BZA appeal ruling and eliminate the petition process altogether fits into a larger pattern of a systemic elimination of formal resident participation and input into the development planning and approval process.

This council and mayor enacted a provision for “rezoning without a small area plan.” In the case of a recent up zoning in Old Town North, the mayor and council used this provision to avoid any formal small area plan update and then argued that because the master plan is dated 1992, that it is too old to be relevant anymore. Instead the planning department produced unofficial “strategy” papers to justify the zoning changes.

On the West End the Beauregard Corridor Plan amalgamates properties in four different small area plans. West End civic leaders objected to this from the outset, but were ignored. Most civic leaders regard the small area plans as vital for protecting the character of the individual neighborhoods. The city’s leaders seem to regard them merely as impediments.

The mayor and his present majority are proceeding on a clearly outlined course — development followed by more development. The city says it wants and values citizen input and goes to great lengths to involve citizens in its decisions. Never mind that the procedural and legal mechanisms for meaningful citizen input is being expunged from the city charter and our zoning law. At the very least, there is intellectual dishonesty here.

Katy Cannady

Alexandria