Bert Ely is one of five residents who plan to sue the city of Alexandria over its waterfront redevelopment plans. He’s shown on the city dock on Dec. 16. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Opponents of Alexandria’s plans to rezone and redevelop its Potomac River waterfront said Tuesday that they will file suit in Circuit Court to overturn a two-week-old City Council decision to move forward.

The plaintiffs, who include leaders of the Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, assert that the city’s refusal to accept a 200-signature petition objecting to the zoning change at its Jan. 21 public hearing allowed a simple majority, rather than a supermajority, to approve the highly controversial action.

The city’s attempt over the past several years to add hotels and parks, connect a disconnected pedestrian walkway, address flooding and enliven the area drew vociferous opposition from some residents, who forced a six-month delay and extracted some compromises from the City Council. But the council voted 5-2, after an 11-hour public hearing, to go ahead with an amended plan over CAAWP’s opposition.

If their petition had been accepted, those who signed it believe the council could not have passed the rezoning measure because a supermajority requires six votes.

Residents say few issues over the years have divided this 150,000-person town like the waterfront controversy. Neighbors argued, and others refused to express their opinions because they feared ostracism. Some accused the opposition of either caving in to commercial and corporate property owners, while others said opponents sought to prevent any change in a town that is heavily dependent on tourism.

The bad guys in the debates were usually city staffers and the Washington Post Co., which owns the two giant Robinson Terminal warehouses that bookend the most controversial eight blocks of the waterfront area. CAAWP accused city officials of rezoning the Robinson properties to avoid the resumption of a lawsuit. The rezoning, CAAWP said, would allow high-rise hotels that would bring too much density and traffic.

“A zoning decision is more permanent than a marriage, because it really is ‘til death do you part,’” said Katy Cannady, a CAAWP leader who attended hundreds of meetings about the waterfront plan.

So tensions were already at a high pitch Jan. 21 when opponents of the waterfront plan tried to stop the City Council vote by serving the city with a petition from people who live within 300 feet of the area affected by the plan. Attorney Roy Shannon said that he attempted to file the appeal the day before but that the planning office refused to accept it, saying it was premature. At the Jan. 21 meeting, planning director Faroll Hamer refused to accept the petition on the grounds that it was a Saturday and that the Board of Zoning Appeals, where the petition should have been filed, was closed.

The plaintiffs said Tuesday that they filed the appeal properly by putting it on a seat beside Hamer and that Hamer’s refusal to accept it means they can now move to Alexandria Circuit Court. However, the suit has not yet been filed.

The five people who said they plan to sue include Bert Ely, a member of a committee appointed by the mayor that spent six months seeking compromise on the issue and an officer in CAAWP. The other plaintiffs are Mark Mueller, Marie Kux, Beth Gibney and April Burke. All are CAAWP members, and the last three live within 300 feet of the waterfront plan area.

City attorney James Banks said that he believes the plaintiffs have to first go through the Board of Zoning Appeals before they can take their case to court.

“We have not been served with the complaint yet,” Banks said, although a copy of the expected lawsuit “is in City Hall somewhere.” Under Virginia law, plaintiffs are supposed to file their case in court and the clerk then orders the defendants to be served. The city then has 21 days to respond, Banks said.