Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Healthy Land Use Process

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Healthy Land Use Process

Speaking as an individual member of the Alexandria Planning Commission, I would like to respond to the Gazette Packet’s recent coverage of land use approvals to renovate and enlarge Bishop Ireton High School. Rather than symbolizing a chasm between the Planning Commission and the Alexandria City Council, it highlights an advisory process for land use approvals that works as intended.

For development special use permit (DSUP) cases like Bishop Ireton, the Planning Commission is tasked with holding a hearing, reviewing the application, and advising City Council to approve, disapprove, or approve with conditions. City Council then considers the recommendation of the Planning Commission in reaching a final approval decision.

In this case, the commission voted to recommend approval with conditions, but omitted three specific conditions recommended by city staff. These conditions were based on an agreement between Bishop Ireton and the adjacent neighborhood association, and would have limited non-school exterior events to no more than two non-profit artistic-centered events open to the public for free; prohibited non-school use of the auditorium and gymnasiums; and forbidden shared use of the school’s parking lot.

I commend the school and its neighbors for negotiating an agreement in advance of public hearings, but could not support these particular conditions for three specific reasons:

  • The conditions not only limit, but legally prohibit, certain uses of school facilities by non-school users. In a city where meeting space, gymnasiums, athletic fields, performance venues, and parking is at a premium, the city should actively encourage rather than prevent shared uses. These conditions also inhibit the school’s ability to fulfil its core mission.

  • The conditions more stringently restrict Bishop Ireton’s operations than other high schools in the city. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) prohibits land use regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious institutions, including Bishop Ireton, a Catholic high school.

  • The conditions codify, through legislative action by City Council, issues best addressed through a private agreement between the school and neighborhood association. The city must be mindful the constitutional limits of police power that enable zoning restrictions and not regulate beyond the minimum necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare. In addition, conditions should be fully enforceable by the city, and should not set an inappropriate precedent for future DSUP cases.

The commission’s review of these conditions is wholly consistent with its role to advise City Council regarding land use actions. Since the conditions were entirely within the scope of the DSUP before the Planning Commission, the recommendation to reject them does not represent policymaking beyond the limits of the commission’s charge.

Despite the recommendation of a unanimous Planning Commission, City Council reinstated the three conditions, as is its prerogative. Reasonable minds will differ on these issues, and council serves as the final arbiter.

The spirited debate over Bishop Ireton is not an aberration of the planning process, but instead signals a healthy mechanism within city government to debate and resolve land use matters. While not the outcome the Planning Commission recommended, I accept the council's decision, and look ahead to future cases.

Nathan Macek, Member

Alexandria Planning Commission