Beyond are the yachts tucked side-by-side in their slips, the slow roll of the Potomac River and the airplanes that come and go from Reagan National with almost tidal rhythm. It’s easy to overlook the nearly adjoining asphalt parking lot surrounded by a locked chain-link fence.
The Old Dominion Boat Club’s half-acre lot has become the latest flash point in Alexandria’s long-running effort to rejuvenate its waterfront and create continuous public walkway along the Potomac. After years of on-again, off-again negotiations, frustrated city leaders are threatening to seize the lot by eminent domain for a public park.
Now, as in the past, the 133-year-club won’t give it up without a fight. Once a mainstay of Old Town Alexandria’s establishment — its members included former mayors, legislators and bankers — the club has fought with the city over various issues over the years and says it intends to keep the free parking that comes with the members’ $460 annual dues.
“We were here when no one else was. This is our property,” said Eric DeSoto, chairman of the club’s board of governors. “We have people who live out of town, we have employees, we have events and functions.”
The city, though, says that the parking lot is keeping it from fully realizing a waterfront plan, which passed the City Council 19 months ago. The plan seeks to turn the eight blocks of Old Town’s waterfront into a more lively and accessible stretch of parks, small hotels and retail space.
The redevelopment would also address the area’s long-standing problems with flooding and sewer overflows. The project is imperative, supporters say, both for economic growth and for completing the evolution of the area from a series of loading docks and storehouses into something friendly to the tourists who wander down King Street and find themselves funneled into a narrow city park that’s hemmed in by the boat club and its parking lot.
DeSoto, who said it was the club that restarted negotiations with the city in March, said city officials cut off the talks too soon.
Last week, the club made what its leaders called a major concession: allowing public walkways on the property. One will be built atop a retaining wall along the river, the other is a sidewalk along the street side of the parking lot.
“We’ve consistently said it’s our desire to be good neighbors and good business partners with the city of Alexandria,” DeSoto said. “We’ve looked at every possibility for moving the club. But we’re a boat club. We need to be on the water.”
Mayor William D. Euille (D) called the boat club’s latest offer “a start, but it doesn’t fully address all the points we’ve been discussing for 10 years. . . .It’s nibbling at the edges.” Euille said the city has not barred further negotiations despite its plan for a public hearing next month that will weigh public reaction about whether to go forward with eminent domain.
“I’m hoping between now and Nov. 19, common sense will prevail, and we’ll be able to strike a deal," Euille said. “But every time we talk to them, the goal post keeps shifting.”
The modern history of the tussle between the club and government started in 1973, when the U.S. Department of Interior sued Potomac River landowners, claiming the city’s waterfront consists of landfill that’s owned by the federal government. Most landowners settled quickly, but the boat club fought back — and 38 years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the club owned the land.
The city and the club, meanwhile, were arguing over ownership of a 30-foot-wide strip of land between the clubhouse and the parking lot. The city said it was an extension of King Street, and therefore public. The club said it was part of the land it bought with the parking lot in 1935. The club fenced it in; in 1978, the city took the fence down and reclaimed the property.
Despite the disagreement, the club and Alexandria reached an agreement in 1985 for the city to buy the club’s waterfront property for $1.5 million and move the clubhouse a few blocks north. But the federal government blocked the move because its 1973 case was pending.
The club and the city also have tangled over the use of Wales Alley, a nearby lane that leads to the boat club’s parking lot. When the city allowed a new restaurant, Virtue Feed and Grain, to set out tables and planters in the alley in 2010, Old Dominion sued. The club lost at the Circuit Court in 2012, but it appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. The court is expected to rule on that appeal next month.
All those legal battles consume a lot of time. The club said it would rather spend its efforts on the extensive fundraising and goodwill events it stages, including oyster roasts during the annual Scottish Christmas Walk and events for wounded military veterans. The club raises money for cancer-fighting charities. It takes developmentally disabled children out on the water and underwrites T.C. Williams High School’s rowing program.
“The vast amount of legal funds we’ve spent over the years could be seen as a theft from the children of Alexandria,” DeSoto said.
But acquiring the land by eminent domain might be difficult. Less than a year ago, Virginia voters passed a constitutional amendment that stiffened the rules under which government could take private land. No jurisdiction has tried to start eminent-domain proceedings since then, the Virginia attorney general’s office confirmed. And one of the main supporters of the amendment warned the city of what could be ahead.
“Alexandria is going to have a high threshold to meet” if it seeks to take the boat club’s land, Trey Davis of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said in an e-mail.