Alexandria waterfront dispute revives

Alexandria’s neighborhood organizations say the city’s latest plans to remove obstacles from the redevelopment of the Potomac River waterfront could also remove the right of citizens to protest development near their homes.

The city says that’s not so and late last week posted a file of frequently asked questions on its Web site in advance of Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting and a City Council vote set for March 16.

The long-running Alexandria waterfront development battle, which divided the community for two years, is back, with dueling sets of facts and perspectives on the future of the city.

Most residents probably thought this was settled more than a year ago, when the council, after an 11-hour public hearing, voted 5 to 2 to allow two new hotels along the Old Town area of the waterfront. The two council members who cast the opposing votes lost their reelection bids last fall, and the two leaders of the protest movement lost races for the council and mayor’s seat. It seemed that supporters of the city’s plan had clearly won the public’s endorsement.

But opponents filed several legal challenges, and the City Council, in an attempt to avoid delays and complications if the opposition wins, decided to have a re-vote of last year’s decision. The new council is likely to pass the measures by a 6 to 1 supermajority.

The supermajority is important because it addresses a key part of the protesters’ legal argument — that Alexandria’s zoning law requires a two-thirds vote of the seven-member council to overrule a protest by residents who live near a proposed zoning change who object to the change.

The dispute hangs on the arcane difference between amendments to zoning maps and zoning text. Opponents say they have a right to protest changes to both. The city says that protests apply only to changes to zoning maps and that the waterfront plan dealt with a text amendment. The proposed changes coming to the Planning Commission and City Council will clarify the law, city officials say.

The City Council’s sole no vote is likely to come from Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg (D), who opposed the waterfront plan during her election campaign last fall. She recently released letters of support from former mayor and state senator Patsy Ticer (D-Alexandria) and two preservation organizations and a hand-written postcard from folk singer Pete Seeger. He relied on a 2011 opinion piece that Silberberg wrote in The Washington Post for his knowledge of the issue.

The Alexandria Federation of Civic Organizations asked the city manager to delay the vote in order to have “the broadest and most thoughtful deliberation and unhurried consideration” of how to protect the public’s right of protest. City Manager Rashad Young has not publicly responded, but Alexandria’s Planning and Zoning Department uploaded a question-and-answer document to the city Web site Friday that said its proposal does not remove any right of protest but clarifies that protests are limited to amendments to zoning maps.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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