On Saturday, March 16 at City Hall, elected officials will take a vote that seems intended to try to deny property owners’ their day in court. This vote could easily end by depriving the majority of property owners throughout the City of Alexandria the right to freely petition against zoning decisions that affect them; it would restrict access to the city’s own Protest Petition.
On March 5 citizens’ clarity and the integrity of their arguments regarding the importance of the Protest Petition were in no doubt. Many favored relying on judicial reasoning for a full and final understanding of the Protest Petition process. This is scheduled on the Circuit Court docket for April 9.
If a super majority of council members agree on March 16 to limit access to the city’s now freely available Protest Petition, this rarely used but highly important way to question and challenge city zoning, will be restricted to just a few property owners. The many who are left out can no longer simply present their petition to the city and appear before the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) in a fee-free, last resort to press their case.
The Protest Petition, cumbersome and difficult to achieve, is a way to require the city to respond to property owners’ concerns about laws that might encourage tall buildings, dense neighborhoods, traffic congestion, or any change to where they live. In the past the city would indicate these changes by drawing maps to show where they could happen. But today, most changes like adding a hospital, several floors to a building, etc. are best described with words and are called text amendments. If the city’s March 16 vote creates new restrictive rules, property owners (commercial and individual) affected by text amendments cannot use the Protest Petition process.
The city’s apparent purpose in limiting most property owners’ access to a Protest Petition stems from fear it will stifle development. This is unreasonable and unsupported. The Protest Petition was designed to be so difficult to do and so uncertain in its outcome that is it truly a property owner’s last resort when freely appealing to their city.
Firstly, the petition must come from property owners representing 20 percent of the land — either within 300 feet of the parcel to be rezoned or 20 percent of the land inside the zone — not an easy number to attain. The larger the area zoned the tougher this is. Secondly, it requires a planimeter to measure the boundaries. Finally, filing it with the city might be a painfully difficult task. All together, the risk of even a few Protest Petitions being filed is probably smaller than a snowball’s chance in summer. As such, this March 16 vote to whittle the number of Protest Petitions filed stands out as an exercise in intimidation and fear mongering.
This political maneuver of a re-vote seems a clever way to clear a path for the city’s overly dense waterfront plan. The way was paved when the Planning Commission drafted amendments violating the current city charter and, perhaps, Virginia code. It also instructed staff to clarify the confused zoning advice regarding Protest Petitions. The BZA gave the same direction about a year ago — nothing was done. In fact, it is simply the city’s 20 years of ad hoc rule making that has produced confused zoning law.
The Protest Petition process is one of the most valuable governance tools available to all property owners, but it is especially important to the city. It is the city’s own platform for negotiation. With the city as mediator with all property owners at the table, it creates high transparency that raises trust levels all around. It is the city’s last and best opportunity to avoid litigation.
Is the city taking a re-vote to prevent court costs? Or, to save face by avoiding the April 9 Circuit Court review of its own appeal of the BZA’s decision, which upheld the Protest Petitioners? It is still possible to hammer out an equitable and optimal solution for less dense waterfront development — let’s hope that happens.