A 6-foot-high chain-link fence that blocks public access to a portion of Alexandria's most historic street and some of the city's most picturesque river views once again has become the subject of bitter controversy.
The fence, about 20 feet wide, was erected decades ago by the private Old Dominion Boat Club across the lower end of King Street, although the city never has yielded title to the street. The fence effectively turns a 70-yard-long section of what Alexandria officials say is a city street into a small grassy enclave for the boat club members.
"I would like to know who owns that section of the street, and if the city owns it, then perhaps the fence should be removed," said City Council member Beverly Beidler. She has introduced a motion for next Tuesday's council meeting that would direct the city attorney to complete a comprehensive title and record search begun last year into the ownership of that section of the street.
But her efforts are likely to run into strong opposition from Mayor Frank E. Mann, a longtime member of the boat club. "I think she (Beidler) is wasting her time," Mann said the other day. "That little piece of land on King Street doesn't amount to a hill of beans."
Others disagree, among them city manager Douglas Harman. He calls King Street the "most important avenue" in the city and says the boat club's claim to the street is "not fair."
Citing the dramatic changes in the King Street area in recent years, Harman has argued that public access to that portion of the street "has become extremely important as the city has developed its own identity."
The city's seal shows a three masted sailing ship, but "right now there is no public access to the river from King Street, the city's most important thoroughfare," Harman said. "In fact, unless you get up close to the fence, you don't rally have a sense that the river is there at all," he said.
In recent years the City Council has constructed a river-front park near the boat club, and declared that a public walkway should run along the river's edge. Currently nine architectural firms are developing plans for the use of an old government torpedo factory, now an arts center, next to the boat club.
Opening up King Street to the public would complete the revitalizing of the waterfront, Harman said.
In the past decade the character of the area has changed from one of dingy warehouses and flophouses to one of fashionable shops and restaurants. Real estate values have sky-rocketed and Washington tourists who once never blinked as they whizzed through Alexandria on their way to Mount Vernon now flock to the area by the thousands.
That change is largely responsible for the city's new interest in the fence. During the years when the street was lined by storehouses, loading docks, and the torpedo factory, there were few objections to the boat club's use of the street.
Founded in 1880, the 500-member boat club owns land on both sides of King Street and at one time used its funds to fill in a portion of the waterfront to build a dock there for its members.
Several decades ago the club blocked and then fenced off King Street, laying turf down on its side of the fence, bringing in gas-fired barbecue grills, and putting up an enormous decorative black anchor in what some city officials say is the middle of the street.
Last year, reflecting the changing mood of the city toward its waterfront, the council asked City Attorney Cyril D. Calley to formally advise it on the question of King Street's ownership. Calley commissioned real estate and business lawyer James C. Brincefield Jr., to research the issue. Brincefield informed Calley on Feb. 20 that "tentative answers based on the preliminary study" indicate that use of the street "probably" extends to the city, but that "further study" is needed.
Brincefield said this week that members of the boat club "have told me that they've obtained the ownership or exclusive right to use the area. I've requested them to provide me the documentation for that statement . . . but they have declined to produce it. Therefore, I don't even know the nature of the claim," he said.
Thomas R. Dyson Jr., the attorney for the boat club, said, "We're waiting to see what the city wants us to do" before taking a position on the fence. "Nobody wants to do anything precipitous."
The boat club, which now sponsors occasional events for mentally retarded children, rather than yachting regattas for socialities, has always had influential members of the city on its membership rolls. Lawyers and state legislators often dine on its terrace overlooking the river.
City manager Harman said he believes the fence is unfair because "a resident of the city who is not a boat club member has no access to the river. The boat club creates a pleasant ambiance," which the public should be able to enjoy, Harman said.