Wales Alley belongs to Alexandria, court says

The Alexandria Circuit Court ruled Tuesday in a two-year-old lawsuit that a private boat club could not prevent the city of Alexandria from making changes to an alley that leads to the city’s waterfront.

The court said the Old Dominion Boat Club no longer owns an easement to Wales Alley, so it cannot object when the city allows a restaurant to set out tables or build a deck along the 30-foot-wide alley.


A map of Wales Alley in Alexandria, Va.
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A map of Wales Alley in Alexandria, Va.

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The boat club, which argued that its members use the alley to get to its parking lot on the Potomac River, decried the decision.

“We are certainly disappointed in the circuit court’s dismissal of this case,” said Miles Holtzman, the boat club’s president. “It is distressing that a court — any court — would allow a government to take private property and allow it to be used by another private owner.”

An easement on the alley was first granted in 1789, when a property owner split his land into four parcels. The easement was intended to prevent any owner from blocking access to public thoroughfares. The boat club bought the easement in 1935.

The city argued that the alley had long since become a public thoroughfare, and noted that the city maintained it and enforced parking rules. Several years ago, it granted a special-use permit to the restaurant Virtue Feed and Grain, allowing it to use the alley for outdoor seating.

“Essentially, the easement had extinguished,” said Christopher Spera, assistant city attorney.

The ruling was preceded by a Virginia Supreme Court decision this spring that overturned a circuit court decision without ruling on the merits, and returned it to the lower court. Holtzman said the club hasn’t decided whether to appeal.

“This provides clarity to everyone in terms of property rights and ownership, instead of vagueness and misunderstanding,” said Mayor William D. Euille (D). “In my view, the court has given us an opportunity to move forward.”

The case is part of a larger struggle between the city and the boat club over public access to and redevelopment of the waterfront. The city and boat club have long disputed ownership of a section of an adjacent street, the Strand, although no one has filed suit over it. In addition, the city and the club have had on-and-off negotiations about how to incorporate the club’s parking lot, at the foot of King Street, into the city’s redevelopment plan.

“This is not necessarily an eminent-domain case, but it’s a lot like one,” Holtzman said. Virginia voters will determine Nov. 6 whether to stiffen the commonwealth’s eminent-domain statutes.

The case is one in a series of lawsuits related to Alexandria’s waterfront redevelopment plan. The city has won each challenge so far, but the city’s challenge to a decision by its Board of Zoning Appeals will be heard next spring.

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