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Alexandria boat club wins Va. Supreme Court decision on access to city-owned alley

Dave Nicholas, a partner in Virtue Feed & Grain, sweeps a portion of West Alley that is outside his restaurant, on the right. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

The Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Alexandria’s Old Dominion Boat Club still has the right to use the block-long Wales Alley to get its members’ vessels to its Potomac River parking lot and boat ramp and that the city can’t stop it simply because it owns the alley.

The decision is important, attorneys on both sides said, because it clarifies the rights of both the city and the boat club in the ongoing civic battle over how Alexandria’s waterfront will redevelop.

“I’m glad that we’re done with this litigation, but we’re still in a fight for the existence of the Old Dominion Boat Club,” said Eric DeSoto, chairman of the club’s board of directors.

“We are disappointed by this ruling, but we accept it,” Mayor William D. Euille (D) said in a statement. “However, this does not affect our implementation” of the city’s waterfront plan. Traffic, landscape design and flood mitigation studies are underway.

The court rejected Alexandria’s argument that because the city owns the alley, the club’s easement to use the alley is no longer valid.

“Lots and lots of times, individuals, utilities — whoever — often [have] easements over land the city owns,” said boat club attorney David Chamowitz. While the alley is not the only way for the club’s boaters to get to the river, the law doesn’t say “if you can get in another way, the easement goes poof,” Chamowitz said.

Wales Alley, a brick-lined passageway just south of King Street, links Union Street with The Strand, the nearest street that is parallel with the river. On the other side of the Strand sits the boat club’s half-acre parking lot and boat ramp. Encircled by a city-built chain-link fence, the lot is reviled by some as an eyesore but is prized by club members for its free parking, its proximity to the clubhouse and its space to store boat trailers as well as vehicles.

In an issue that is legally separate but geographically and politically relevant, the city is considering taking the parking lot by eminent domain for a public park and has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for Nov. 19.

The Virginia Supreme Court case that was decided Thursday stemmed from the city’s 2010 permit, which allowed a restaurant, Virtue Feed & Grain, to build an elevated deck on half of the 30-foot-wide alley. At the same time, the city turned the alley into a one-way passage from Union Street to the Strand.

The club sued, noting that it had not surrendered its right to the easement. The restaurant did not build the elevated deck, but the city allowed it to put out tables, umbrellas and planters on a daily basis. Boat owners could still get to the river through the alley but had to exit along the Strand.

The easement dates to 1789, when John Fitzgerald and Valentine Peers split some property and granted easements to several alleys, including “one street or alley of thirty feet wide running from Union Street to the river.” That’s what came to be known as Wales Alley. The river used to come up to The Strand, until the land was extended out into the old riverbed by built-up silt and man-made fill. In about 1990, the city paved the alley and prohibited parking. It built a brick sidewalk, repaired potholes and ploughed snow. In 2010, Alexandria granted a special-use permit that allowed the restaurant to build a deck on half of the alley. Whether the court’s ruling means the alley must return to two-way traffic or whether the restaurant will be allowed to continue to use part of it for outdoor dining will be determined when the order from the court’s ruling is issued in coming weeks, lawyers said.

The boat club in 1935 bought Fitzgerald’s property and with it came the easement. Court documents said that over the next 35 years, the alley was described as “private.” But when Dockside Sales, which had bought Peer’s property, built two wooden fences blocking the alley, the boat club sued. The courts ruled for the boat club, declared the alley “an established public way,” and ordered the fences taken down.

The Wales Alley case is one of numerous lawsuits and electoral campaigns over contested portions of Alexandria’s redevelopment of its disjointed waterfront. After the City Council passed the waterfront plan in January 2012, opponents challenged it before the Board of Zoning Appeals and in Circuit Court. In the fall, the two City Council members who opposed the plan lost reelection bids and a mayoral challenger who built his campaign on opposition to the waterfront plan also lost.

In September, the state Supreme Court rejected the case brought by Old Town residents known as the “Iron Ladies” to overturn the whole waterfront plan.

Weeks later, developers announced that they agreed to buy the two Robinson Terminal warehouses, formerly owned by The Washington Post Co., on each end of the eight-block section of Old Town’s waterfront.

Another developer has proposed building a small hotel on a third property. A restaurant, launched by the owner of the Bittersweet Cafe, is scheduled to open in November near the Torpedo Factory, and a separate restaurant group has expressed interest in taking over the now-empty food court on the other side of the Torpedo Factory.

Patricia Sullivan covers government, politics and other regional issues in Arlington County and Alexandria. She worked in Illinois, Florida, Montana and California before joining the Post in November 2001.

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