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City Council and residents battle over Old Town development in court and tense meetings

A rendering for 301 N. Fairfax Street in Old Town (via City of Alexandria)

The City of Alexandria is fighting with residents over a new development in court, but the battle spilled over into a public comment section that ended with a rebuke from the dais.

A lawsuit filed with the Circuit Court of Alexandria calls for a special use permit approved by the City Council in January to be invalidated, alleging the decision is in direct contradiction to the city zoning ordinance.

The lawsuit was filed by seven nearby residents who allege that the new development at 301 N. Fairfax Street will devalue their properties and ’cause wear and tear and damage’ to infrastructure.

The property is currently an office building constructed in 1977 and the lawsuit notes that, prior to the City Council vote on Jan. 20, it was zoned as ‘commercial downtown’ in the Old and Historic District, rezoned in that meeting to commercial residential mixed use/high. The new development will be a residential building with 48 units.

The crux of the lawsuit is that the rezoning makes the property mixed-use — with a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 2.5 — but plans for the site indicate the use will be entirely residential — which has a maximum permitted FAR of 1.25

Section 5-305(C) provides under “mixed use or residential/SUP” that “if at least 50 percent of the floor space of the proposed development is for residential use and if the commercial use within such a development does not exceeed a floor area ratio of 1.25, then, with a special use permit, the maximum permitted floor area ratio may be increased to an amount not to exceed 2.5.” Zoning Ordinance 5-305(C).

Clearly referenced in this subsection is the mixed use of a proposed development, and the authorization of special use permits for up to 2.5 FAR where there is at least 50 percent residential use and “the commerical use” does not exceed a FAR of 1.25. Absent from that section is the language “a commercial use” or “any commercial use”.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the special use permit ‘void ab initio’ and “enjoin the City from issuing any permits for the 301 North Fairfax Project or from taking any further action pursuant to the SUP.

Even as the lawsuit is working through courts, Alexandria’s City Council voted on Saturday in favor of an ordinance to amend the Old Town Small Area Plan and to amend the Official Zoning Map to reflect the mixed-use zoning for 301 N. Fairfax Street.

It was a largely administrative follow-up to the earlier rezoning, but it drew some heated back-and-forth during the public comments.

Several nearby residents in opposition to the development spoke and expressed their frustration with the city’s rezoning of the parcel.

“Why have a City Council that continually ignores the concerns of your own constituents,” said nearby resident Anna Bergman. “You’re knowingly turning the Old and Historic District into the architectural banality that is North Old Town.”

“Most of you are on your phones, not even looking up, rolling your eyes,” said resident Nanci Petit. “How can you be so disconnected with what you’ve heard over eight months and others today wanting to stop the arena. The only thing I can come up with is a lack of oxygen because you have your head so far up the developer’s abacus worried about their profit margins that you can’t see straight.”

After attorney Cathy Puskar, representing the developer, spoke, several members of the audience hissed in response, sparking a reprimand from Mayor Justin Wilson and others on the City Council.

“Please, guys, literally come on,” said Wilson. “I spent like an hour with a bunch of preschoolers yesterday and they were better behaved than this.”

City Council member John Chapman was the lone vote against the zoning change in January and voted against the changes at the Saturday meeting, but also expressed frustration at the way members of the public spoke about City Council members and city staff.

“I do not take lightly the kind of personal attacks against the character of any member of this body,” Chapman said. “One of the more recent speakers spoke to why you might not see us looking up. I know the Council member on my right (Sarah Bagley) takes notes on everyone who speaks. She might not look up at you, she has notepad after notepad on each individual’s comments. We listen with our ears, that’s what we’re doing.”

The planning and map amendments were passed in a 6-1 vote.

James Cullum contributed to this story

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