Alexandria city officials declared an end Tuesday to the long-running talks with the Old Dominion Boat Club over their 0.6-acre parking lot at the foot of King Street, announcing a public hearing to determine whether to take the lot by eminent domain for a public park.
The city mayor, manager and attorney, acting at the direction of the City Council, called for a public meeting and hearing Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. at City Hall to discuss why the on-again, off-again negotiations have failed.
The 53-space parking lot adjacent to the boat club is in the way of the city’s grand plan for a revitalized Old Town waterfront, which officials describe as “the crown jewel" of the historic city’s front door.
“The single most important goal of the [waterfront] plan has been for decades the continuous public access to the waterfront from Daingerfield Island to Jones Point Park,” said Mayor William D. Euille (D). “The only remaining barrier is the parking lot of the Old Dominion Boat Club. It is the missing link.”
City leaders left the door open to further negotiations with the club, but they made it clear that they are fed up with the delays and the inability to resolve the matter. City manager Rashad Young and a deputy last met with the club’s representatives three weeks ago, but he said the negotiations had been stalled for four months.
“For about the last 15 years, the city has held many, many meetings with the Old Dominion Boat Club negotiators,” Young said. “Each time the two parties were close to an agreement, the boat club decided terms previously agreed to were unacceptable... The time has come for a formal public airing of this issue.”
About a half-dozen boat club members attended the morning press conference. They appeared to be taken by surprise by the city’s action. Members attending the club’s monthly meeting Monday night learned about it only when former city council member Frank Fannon saw a Washington Post article about the city’s plans on his cellphone and interrupted the meeting to alert them.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to come to a mutual agreement on this,” Fannon said Tuesday morning. “This has gone on for a long time. It’s [the boat club’s] property... As an Alexandrian, everybody wants to see an improved waterfront. There are hundreds of details to work out, and a draft response was supposed to be ready this week. People at the club have worked on this for years and years.”
One of the club’s attorneys, David L. Chamowitz, declined to comment about the city’s plans.
The disagreement between the city and the 130-year-old club has been going on for years and was exacerbated during the 2011-2012 civic battle over the future of the eight blocks along the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria. The city plans to revitalize the area by encouraging new development of two small hotels, residences, retailers and an uninterrupted series of public parks along the water. After several legal battles and a City Council election, those who approve of the city’s plan won.
But last November, Virginia voters also approved a constitutional amendment that makes it harder for governments to seize private property. The state constitution now says local governments may take private land only for public uses, and forbids governments from taking land for economic revitalization if the primary purpose is private gain, job creation or increasing tax revenue. The amendment also orders governments to pay not just “fair market value” but “just compensation,” which factors in potential lost profits or the value of lost access.
City officials said Tuesday that since they want to turn the parking lot into a public park, they are confident they are within the law. They also pointed out that the parking lot exacerbates the periodic flooding that closes part of King Street after heavy storms and high tides and said they need to incorporate flood control measures at the site and improve storm sewers there.
The parking lot, which is often less than half-full, is surrounded by a city-built, chain-link fence and locked gate. It’s used for boat storage and vehicle parking, and it blocks pedestrian access along the water.
The club’s 1923-era clubhouse would not be affected by any city action and is not in danger of being seized by the city, Euille, Young and Banks noted. They said their interest is limited to the parking lot and several parking spots on the adjacent street, The Strand. Under questioning, city officials said that they plan to incorporate access to a boat ramp.
The last offer by the city became public Aug. 31, after the city interpreted a citizen’s inquiry as a Freedom of Information Act request. In the documents released to the public, the city also demanded clearing up a legal dispute, now before the Virginia Supreme Court, over public access to the nearby Wales Alley.
Euille, who last year declared that Alexandria would not exercise eminent domain as long as he remains mayor, acknowledged Tuesday that his position has changed.
“It’s gotten to a point ... after 10 years of frustration... I reached a conclusion no matter how committed and dedicated we are, it seems like we’re never going to get there,” he said. “I changed my approach and will have to do what’s in the best interests of the city. Citizens are crying out and saying move on, enough is enough.”