Alexandria’s Karig Estates: Epilogue

Alexandria’s Karig Estates: Epilogue

Planning Commission begins Karig Estates debate autopsy.

“What I think, apart from everything else, was this was an in depth look at what we can and cannot regulate.” — Karl Moritz, Director, Planning and Zoning

The saga of Karig Estates came to a close in January, but despite the defeat for the neighbors who appealed the decision, the decision is still leaving ripples through city governance. At a Feb. 6 Planning Commission meeting, the issue of Karig Estates was revisited. The commission talked through long-term plans to address the grievances of neighbors, if not at Karig Estates itself, then at future developments.

Karig Estates is an approved development near a wetland and a cliff face with heavy quantities of unstable marine clay. Neighboring residents appealed the Planning Commission’s earlier approval of the site to the City Council, who sustained the commission’s decision in a 6-1 vote. Commission Member Stephen Koenig noted that while the city’s Environmental Policy Commission hadn’t gotten involved in the debate before the decision, after the council’s vote they voted to do an after action review of the project.

“This leads me to a question for us tonight, given the intensity of the citizen engagement on the project,” said Koenig. “Given that we had a lack of consensus, do commissioners have any sense of whether we should make any further consideration [of the Karig Estates development]?”

Reception to the idea was mixed, with many supporting the proposal but others concerned it could stir up trouble.

“I’m not one for going back and trumping over old ground,” said Commision Chair Mary Lyman, “particularly when it’s been through an appeal process.”

But others on the commission said there could be value to future projects in a Karig Estates post-mortem.

“For me, there seemed to be a gap between the regulatory structure and what a lot of people around the project thought were suitable solutions,” said Commission Member Melissa McMahon. “It would be helpful for me to understand and convey to the community that standards are set where they are for a reason. Even if it’s just spot checking why things are the way they are.”

Karl Moritz, director of Planning and Zoning, said much of the Karig Estates controversy stemmed out of a misunderstanding of what the city could and could not regulate. Moritz reiterated an argument made by staff during the City Council debate that the council was limited in what their grounds for overruling the Planning Commission’s ruling to finding legal fault with the approval.

“What I think, apart from everything else, was this was an in depth look at what we can and cannot regulate,” said Moritz. “It highlighted for a number of people things they thought we could regulate that [we were unable to].”

McMahon said she was interested in seeing an analysis of that aspect of the Karig Estates issue, rather than a dissection of a dead case.

“What we don’t want to do is re-litigate case,” agreed Koenig. “[This isn't] about why things did or did not get evaluated one way. As someone who supported the project going forward, I have same level of concern about whether there is something about the intensity of the project and the way things were revealed that we should attend to in the right way. We need to differentiate between things that were just not possible to change and were assumed by the public to be within our purview. But [we also must] identify those particular tools that might be amenable to retirement.”

Koenig noted that the city cannot afford to alienate the citizenry that spoke out against the Karig Estates development.

“We had a very large number of very thoughtful, educated, and committed citizens who need to be our allies in environmental protection issues and they think we completely missed the boat,” said Koenig. “They think we approved a project that inappropriately prioritized engineering solutions and completely discounted fundamentally important environmental considerations. I don’t think that’s what we think is the case, but that’s one of the impressions that is abroad.”

“I think we were all following the rules as well as we could,” Lyman agreed. “I don’t think anyone was terribly happy about cutting down trees or things being razed. But we need to look at what our procedures are and what our rules are and see if they can be improved.”