U.S. District Judge Oren R. Lewis rejected yesterday the federal government's complaint that high-rise construction in Rosslyn will despoil the Washington skyline, saying that government lawyers failed to prove the new buildings will be a "public nuisance."
"These buildings would not detract from the average visitor's view of the memorials, monuments and parks of our nation's capital," Lewis said in a 13-page opinion.
Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, who ordered the suit filed after he became alarmed at new buildings that he called "monsters," said he would urge that the ruling be appealed. "The decision is mistaken and wrong..." Andus said yesterday.
Lewis' ruling was not a total defeat for the federal government. The judge upheld the Justice Department's right to bring the suit -- a point challenged by Arlington County officials -- but he chided federal lawyers for waiting until after the buildings were planned to bring the suit.
Construction already has begun on two of the four disputed buildings, which will rise as high as 29 stories on a Virginia bluff overlooking the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center and Roosevelt Island. The buildings will be the tallest in the Washington area.
The federal government's objections to the high rises, Lewis said, could be reduced to a question of whcther they can be considered a nuisance, and that, he said, is essentially a dispute over whether the buildings are too tall. "Height alone is not enough... and offense to the esthetic senses is not sufficient to constitute a public nuisance," Lewis said.
In testimony before Lewis last month, National Gallery of Art Director J. Carter Brown said that the three office buildings and one hotel would be a "visual intrusion akin to an act of urban vandalism."
In a recent interview, Andrus called the buildings "monsters that would visually deface the skyline surrounding the national monuments" and said they would reverse nearly 200 years of architectural planning which he, as secretary of the Interior, is compelled to protect.
Developers and Arlington officials, who had accused Andrus of meddling in a local zoning issue, reacted with pleasure to Lewis' decision. They had argued that the county was within its rights to waive a 16-story height limit in return for public improvements that the high-rise developers paid for.
"I don't think it lets us off the hook as far as increased height is concerned, but it lets us off the hook because we proceeded properly," said Arlington County Board Chairman Dorothy T. Grotos. "I think the board will be more careful about these things in the future."
"Of course we expected him [Lewis] to rule this way," said Stanley West-reich, developer of the disputed three-building Arland Towers complex.
Lewis held that the county board action approving the buildings in return for the public improvements was "neither unlawful, arbitrary nor unreasonable." Justice Department lawyers had charged that the county had "sold zoning" to one developer whose building was approved after he agreed to purchase land valued at $1 million from the county.
The government had sought an order from Lewis that would impose a maximum height of 20 stories on the Rosslyn buildings, a request Lewis rejected. He said the impact of such an order would be "debatable to say the least," noting that the federal government had never sought an order controlling "the height or bulk" of buildings near the national monuments on grounds that they would pose a nuisance.
The last time a Northern Virginia environmental decision by Lewis was appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the panel of three appeals court judges seemed baffled and skeptical by the dispute.
"Where's Arlington?" asked Judge Donald Russell, a former South Carolina governor, as the appeals court began consideration of a suit trying to block Interstate Rte. 66 construction there. The court upheld Lewis' decision to permit construction of the bitterly-contested highway from the Capital Beltway to the Potomac.