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Letter to the Editor: Pre-emptive Strike?

To the Editor:

The announcement at the mayor’ news conference last week that the waterfront plan must be enacted at once is not about making an urgently needed land use decision. It’s about heading off and muting the news that will come from the decisions in the pending court cases involving the way the waterfront decision was made. Many court cases drag on for years, but not the two cases the mayor and his allies on council hope are soon forgotten.

First there is the case in Alexandria Circuit Court in which the City of Alexandria is suing its own council-appointed Board of Zoning Appeals. The city is claiming that its own appointees were wrong to rule that the property owners living in close proximity to the planned new development had submitted a valid protest petition requiring a super majority vote of City Council.

The mayor and council are planning to vote on the waterfront plan on March 16. Arguments in this appeal will be heard in Circuit Court on April 8 and 9. If the council takes a new vote on March 16 and achieves a supermajority of six members, the city’s outside legal counsel can argue on April 8 that the matter is moot. Maybe that will give the semblance of a legal victory and put the embarrassing matter of paying legal fees to overturn a ruling from their own appointees behind them.

Later in the spring the Supreme Court of Virginia is hearing an appeal from a Circuit Court judge’s decision not to invalidate the vote on the waterfront plan, because senior staff did not follow the clear language of the zoning code. By acting on March 16, the mayor and council can say it’s all moot.

In addition to the waterfront plan, the Planning Commission and council would vote in March on new language for the zoning code to “clarify” when a valid protest petition has been submitted. Citizens have not been told yet what the new zoning code language will say. Without doubt, it will make it harder for abutting property owners to submit a petition.

The mayor and his council allies have always behaved as if the protest petition was somehow not sporting and unfair in some way. In fact Alexandria is one of several Virginia jurisdictions that provide for such petitions in their zoning codes. The provision reflects the long held belief in Virginia law and practice that all property owners have rights, including a right to protest if a near neighbor uses his property in way they believe adverse to them. These petitions have always been rare because the current zoning code requirements are hard to meet. Only when we see the actual new language will we know if it creates new insurmountable hurdles. The new language and whether it is acceptable to Alexandrians should be of great interest across the city because it will apply in every neighborhood.

Katy Cannady

Alexandria