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Column: Explaining Waterfront Plan and Petition Process Text Amendments

On Tuesday, March 5, the Alexandria Planning Commission approved two text amendments to Alexandria’s zoning ordinance after public hearings where most of the speakers opposed the amendments. Those opponents may think commissioners disregarded the concerns of those who testified. That is not the case: all commissioners heard and carefully weighed all of what was said. There is a distinction, however, between understanding the arguments made by the speakers and being convinced that the points they advocated would be good for the City of Alexandria.

We thought it would be useful to explain our votes on these two issues.

The first hearing was on zoning ordinance amendments to permit the development envisioned in the Waterfront Small Area Plan. The current zoning does not allow hotels or cultural institutions, such as art schools and museums, nor does it allow the small amount of additional development recommended by the plan. The text amendment we approved at our hearing authorizes the development contemplated by the city’s adopted Waterfront Plan.

During the public hearing, some speakers testified against elements of the Waterfront Plan itself, such as flood mitigation. But the Waterfront Plan was approved by the City Council more than a year ago, is not the subject of litigation, and it was not up for a “re-vote.” The Planning Commission overwhelmingly voted for the plan in May 2011, so it should come as no surprise that the planning commissioners unanimously approved the zoning text amendment to implement it.

The hearings Tuesday night also reminded us that the facts about the Waterfront Plan can get lost in the rhetoric. Several speakers spoke against “massive” new development, but not only is all of the planned development the same size and scale as neighboring buildings, it increases development in the overall Waterfront Plan area by less than 2 percent, and increases potential development on the three small individual development sites in the plan by no more than 25 percent — not the 300 percent stated by opponents and even some mathematically challenged members of the press.

Another speaker complained that the plan’s requirement for below-grade parking was being ignored in the Carr hotel proposal; in fact, the proposal includes a full level of below-grade parking. A third speaker said the plan does not include enough open space, but the waterfront, which is just 4 percent of the city’s land area, contains 40 percent of the city’s open space, and the plan adds 5.5 acres of new open space to that, with 35 percent more new park square footage than new development square footage. Another commenter, apparently confused by other parts of Old Town with combined storm and sanitary sewers, predicted quantities of untreated sewage going into the Potomac as a result of the plan, when in fact the new development is served by a new, uncombined sewer line with far more capacity than needed to accommodate build-out of the entire plan.

Our second hearing was on a proposal to delete two words from the section of the zoning ordinance that empowers neighbors to protest the rezoning of a nearby piece of property. A successful “protest petition” forces the need for an unusually “super” supermajority (6 of 7) of councilmembers to approve that rezoning.

Everywhere else in the protest section of the zoning ordinance, it is clear that it applies to proposed changes to the city’s zoning map — the assignment of a particular piece of property to one zone or another — which is called a map amendment. In one sentence, however, the words “text or” precede the word “map.” Some, including the Board of Zoning Appeals, incorrectly felt that was enough to justify that the protest petition also applies to amending zoning ordinance text, in spite of the impossibility of administering such a requirement, the lack of authority from the Commonwealth of Virginia to permit this approach, or the plain language of the rest of the zoning ordinance.

In the past year, the disagreement about how to interpret this language has resulted in litigation to resolve an issue that, up until now has never been a problem. Since 1992, when the zoning ordinance was comprehensively revised, this provision has only been interpreted in one way.

It was abundantly clear to all commissioners that the extra words are an error and they unanimously voted to remove them. But we agreed with witnesses who thought that there were other protest issues in the zoning ordinance that should be addressed. These include:

  • Should nearby residents be able to use the protest petition for text amendments that are so narrowly drawn that they are, in effect, map amendments?

  • When condominiums protest, should the individual condominium owners sign the petition or does the condominium board speak for them?

  • Should the provision to protest map amendments not be applicable when the map amendment is part of or implements a comprehensive planning effort such as a small area plan, just as it specifically now does not apply to a map amendment that is part of a overall city-wide zoning change?

  • What changes to the city’s charter will need to be adopted by our representatives in Richmond to address these concerns?

The Planning Commission directed staff to come back with a plan to address these and other petition process questions, and the staff is now scheduling its work to meet that goal soon.

To conclude, we continue to support the city’s adopted Waterfront Small Area Plan and are pleased to have supported a change in the zoning ordinance to allow the plan to be implemented. We also are pleased to have clarified the applicability of the appeal provisions of the zoning ordinance to be consistent with how it has been interpreted and administered for the past two decades. We believe these actions will be broadly beneficial for the city and its residents.

The City Council will hold public hearings on both text amendments on Saturday, March 16. We hope the council adopts both amendments as recommended.