In the clearest threat yet that members of the Alexandria City Council are willing to use the power of eminent domain to take land owned by the Old Dominion Boat Club, elected officials adopted a motion that sets a 90-day deadline for a resolution of a long-running conflict between the two. Boat club leaders have offered a compromise, although they have yet to hear any response from city officials. Meanwhile, the motion to begin eminent domain proceedings in February passed on a six-to-one vote.
"I'm hopeful we'll reach a compromise," said Mayor Bill Euille. "But whether we use eminent domain or not, it's a tool that's always available to local governments. Hopefully we won't have to go down that road."
Councilman Paul Smedberg offered the motion threatening eminent domain, which was supported by Councilman Justin Wilson. Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg was the only council member who voted against it, explaining that she could not support the use of eminent domain against the Boat Club. Silberberg also tried to split Smedberg's motion into two parts, one advocating for ongoing negotiation and another threatening the use of eminent domain. Smedberg disagreed. So the vice mayor tried to offer a substitute motion that included language deleting the reference to eminent domain. That failed because no other member of council was willing to support it.
"Eminent domain should be rarely exercised," said Silberberg. "A classic example is when President Eisenhower used it to create the Interstate, and this is not an Interstate."
THE WATERFRONT PLAN has long been a source of frustration and disagreement in Alexandria, where development pressures are calling for density while neighbors are urging restraint. The zoning change adopted by City Council members includes a plan to transform the parking lot and boat launch at the foot of King Street into a public plaza city leaders are calling Fitzgerald Park after former Alexandria Mayor John Fitzgerald. Recommendation 3.72 of the waterfront plan calls for the city to "pursue eliminating the ODBC parking lot along The Strand, preferably through negotiation with the ODBC."
"The elimination of the parking lot creates the opportunity for a major new public space between the Fitzgerald warehouse and the water," according to the plan. "This would open up continuous public access along the waterfront and increase the amount of public space at one of the most important locations on the waterfront."
Over the summer, city leaders offered an ultimatum to the Boat Club. If boat club members agree to reduce the size of the parking lot to 11,500 square feet, the Alexandria city government would be willing construct a public plaza along the Strand side of the lot. Boat Club members countered with their own offer. If the city would agree to lease a portion of the club's property along the Potomac River, the club would agree to create public access to the waterfront. Boat Club members brought a large illustration of what their compromise would look like if city officials agreed to it — or even considered it.
"We have asked for a response, but we have heard no response" said Eric DeSoto, chairman of the Old Dominion Boat Club. "We have asked repeatedly, but the only response we have received is that meeting with the ODBC is not warranted."
THE OVERWHELMING majority of speakers objected to the use of eminent domain — many very strongly. During more than three hours of testimony, only one speaker supported the idea of the city using the power of eminent domain to take land owned by the Old Dominion Boat Club. Mayor Euille said he heard from other people who did not testify in favor of using eminent domain, but he did not name them. Speaker after speaker said using eminent domain would make the city a national laughingstock while ensuring a decade of litigation and bitter division.
"This is not the keystone to the waterfront plan," said former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor based largely on his opposition to the waterfront plan. "This is just an extension of a plan built by developers, not the community."
Many of the speakers raised the issue of a new constitutional amendment, which was overwhelmingly adopted by Virginia voters last year. More than 70 percent of voters across Virginia approved of the amendment, which received 58 percent support in Alexandria. The language of the new amendment forbids governments from taking land for economic revitalization if the primary purpose is private gain, job creation or increasing tax revenues. Because the waterfront plan was sold as a way to increase tax revenue, critics say, the use of eminent domain to obtain land for a park as part of the play clearly falls afoul of the Virginia Constitution.
"You cannot untangle that from what you are trying to do," said Yvonne Weight Callahan, president of the Old Town Civic Association. "So you should be looking forward to perhaps another million dollars of expenses and another decade of litigation."
THE POLITICS of eminent domain could pose a serious challenge for council members, whose term ends in 2015. Now that Mayor Euille and five of the six City Council members are on record supporting eminent domain, the issue is likely to come up during the next election. Republicans are eager to make a case against Democrats for seizing private property, an issue they say is likely to resonate with voters considering the overwhelming margins of the constitutional amendment.
"There's an old poster some of you may be familiar with that has Uncle Sam pointing a finger out saying, 'I Want You,'" said Pat Troy, a Republican who waged two unsuccessful campaigns for City Council. "Now you are creating a new one, 'I Want Your Property.'"
Troy threatened he might even run for City Council again, an announcement that brought thunderous applause from the crowd assembled at City Hall Tuesday night. A more likely candidate was also on the docket, though, former Republican Councilman Frank Fannon. He as ousted when Democrats moved the city election from May to November, when a record number of Democrats turned out to support the reelection of Barack Obama. But the next election is scheduled for 2015, an odd-year election when the Virginia state Senate will be at the top of the ballot.
"This City Council is around for 24 months, and I know you want to figure out something now," said Fannon, who voted against the waterfront plan when he was on council last year. "But no elected official wants to vote on eminent domain. That would be the legacy of this City Council, and no one wants to have that."
THREE OPTIONS are on the table. One would be the city leasing a walkway along the waterfront, the compromise offer from the Boat Club. Another would be a land swap that would trade the Boat Club's land at the foot of King Street for the city's land at the foot of Prince Street. A third option would be using eminent domain to take the land, which would inevitably end up in court. Many of the speakers who participated in Tuesday's public hearing urged compromise.
"It's not going to be perfect, and it's not going to be what each party wants," said Waterfront Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Hall, vice president of the Potomac Riverboat Company. "Everybody is going to have to give a little and put a little skin the game."