The Board of Zoning Appeals has sided with a group of citizens who appealed the city planning director’s decision to reject their petition asking that waterfront area near their homes not be rezoned allowing more and different kinds of development.
The meeting was a cliffhanger until the bitter end as members flipped and flopped during discussion over which way they would vote – ultimately delivering a victory to the citizens with a 4-2 vote around 1 a.m. Friday.
BZA Chairman Mark Allen recused himself from the debate and vote at the beginning of the meeting due to a long-standing relationship with one of the parties involved. Member John Keegan said his membership in the , which does not favor much of the city’s waterfront plan, would not influence his decision.
The City of Alexandria allows people who own properties surrounding a property being rezoned to protest that process to the city.
A group of landowners filed a petition with the city, but it was rejected in January, on the day City Council voted on the waterfront plan. This type of protest petition must directly relate to a “zoning amendment” and it did not, according to city legal staff. If the petition had been accepted, it would have triggered a supermajority, or 6-1 vote, by council to pass the waterfront plan. Council passed the plan in concept 5-2. However, a vote on the zoning portion of the plan was delayed.
Three women who appealed the petition’s rejection – Beth Gibney, April Burke and Marie Kux – all argued Thursday night that they thought they were following the plain language of the ordinance, spent hours collecting signatures and made every effort to comply with city rules.
“We followed the rules, the language of the text amendment. What is the spirit of the law? Isn’t it to give us a voice and protect the citizens?” Gibney asked the BZA.
The BZA members were torn over this point throughout the night’s discussion.
“Is there no process mechanism to appeal a text amendment at all? Is there any other due process option?” asked member Jennifer Lewis.
According to city language, a text amendment can not be protested although a “map amendment” can be protested.
Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Barbara Ross replied that anything related to a text amendment goes through a series of public hearings and every action of council can be challenged in court – but there is no clear mechanism.
Chairman David Lantzy several times questioned why the city could use a text amendment to change entire zoning, and “there’s nothing citizens can do about it.”
For example, Arlington County had a proposition allowing residential owners to raise chickens on their property. In Alexandria, Lantzy posited, that could be covered under a text amendment and citizens would not have the ability to protest it.
Several BZA members agreed the process was a “train wreck” that should never have been allowed to come before them in this form. They also asked City Council to consider forming a work group to address the underlying issues of petitioners' abilities and rights.
Ultimately, the majority of the BZA agreed with the petitioners' lawyer, Roy Shannon, who said the city was cherry-picking which provisions it sought to follow and "when petitioners took action, the city sidestepped the rules and denied them due process."
The meeting was packed with petitioner supporters, who also gave their opinions to the BZA during the public hearing. A smaller group supported the city’s position.
Members Geoffrey Goodale, Keegan, Lantzy and Lewis voted for the plan with Eric Zander and Stephen Koenig voting against.
The city can appeal the decision to the Alexandria Circuit Court.
Click here for more Patch stories and history on the debate over the city's waterfront redevelopment plans.