In Old Town Alexandria, the site of so much Colonial and Civil War history, the battle of La Bergerie has raged for two expensive years.
Hostilities began shortly after the owners of the elegant French restaurant sought to move their business five blocks west to busy Washington Street, where they also hope to operate a small bed-and-breakfast.
Twenty-three neighbors, alarmed at the potential noise, smell and traffic, fought against rezoning the 1820s brick rowhouse. After losing at the planning commission and the Alexandria City Council, they sued, accusing officials of allowing the rezoning as a favor to former mayor and state senator Patsy Ticer, the mother of one of the restaurant owners.
A judge upheld the city’s decision last week. The plaintiffs must decide this month whether to appeal.
So far, the battle has cost taxpayers $972,952 in outside legal fees, twice as much as the city budgeted for such purposes for each of the past two years. Among other things, the plaintiffs’ lawyers, from the prestigious Williams and Connelly law firm, deposed all seven city council members at length. City attorney James Banks said the lawsuit has become Alexandria’s most expensive in at least eight years, and would be costing even more if the city’s own private counsel, McGuire Woods, was not billing at a discount.
The high legal bills have riled up other residents, who say this type of civic intransigence wreaks havoc with the city budget and harms Alexandria’s reputation as friendly to small business. Another case in point: the $300,000 the city spent to defend its waterfront plan from legal challenges brought by residents a few years ago.
“Anyone in Old Town trying to move toward the future is being held up by a handful of people with resources who can use this heavy stick of litigation to stop it,” said Judy Guse-Noritake, an architect who has served on civic boards over the years. “I see this as a microcosm of what’s happening at the federal level — people believe they’re not getting a fair shake, even though we have a democratic government and, God knows, hearing after hearing.”
Jody Manor, owner of Bittersweet Catering, called lawsuits like the one involving La Bergerie a “slap in the face” to small businesses trying to expand and thrive.
“For a small handful of people to cost the city that kind of money at a time when the city manager is asking all departments for a 10 percent budget cut — we could have used that $1 million for schools or any of our other needs,” Manor said.
Old Town is both the source of the city’s all-important tourism dollars and home to many of its most engaged citizens and persistent city-government critics. Not surprisingly, they see the dispute differently.
“A lot of Old Town residents feel this council, and the one prior to this council, want to do nothing but push more development,” said Yvonne Callahan, president of the Old Town Civic Association. “They constantly feel beleaguered and pushed and feel their objections are met with indifference. And, it’s true, this part of town does seem to have more than its share of people who don’t like to take ‘no’ for answer.”
Laurent and Margaret Ticer Janowsky have owned La Bergerie, at 218 N. Lee St., for the past 15 years. The planning commission approved their application to move the business to the corner of Washington and Princess streets in October, 2014. At that meeting, commissioners also honored Patsy Ticer — Margaret’s mother — for her lifelong community work.
When the city council voted 11 days later to uphold the rezoning, the former mayor sat in the front row, opponents of the rezoning noted in their lawsuit. During the break, she lunched with council members nearby, in a room that is open to the public.
The city imposed a number of conditions on La Bergerie, such as limiting the hours that outdoor music is permitted and requiring increased trash pickup and more off-site parking. But that didn’t satisfy Shirley Rettig, 89, who has lived on Princess Street since 1959 and is the first named plaintiff in the case.
“How would you like a restaurant open until 11 p.m. every night 30 feet from your back yard?” she asked. “The parking situation, the noise ... it’s just not the right place for a restaurant.”
Opponents of the lawsuit are further riled by unconfirmed reports that Williams and Connelly is representing the plaintiffs pro bono, perhaps because of personal ties some lawyers at the firm have to the neighborhood.
Neither Rettig nor C. Bryan Wilson, a partner at Williams and Connelly, would confirm the rumors, which have spread rapidly on social media.
Rettig said the cost of the lawsuit to the city did not bother her, and should not be a concern for others.
“Isn’t that too damn bad?” she said. “I’m a taxpayer, too.”