Alexandria anti-‘Zoning for Housing’ case gets another day in court

The Franklin P. Backus Courthouse in Alexandria (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 4 p.m.) Alexandria succeeded in its bid today to dismiss a case filed by residents furious with a citywide zoning overhaul that allows developers to build homes with up to four units on any property, but residents will get a chance to try again in a month.

The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria and residents Phylius Burks, Joyce Pastore, William Corin, David and Meghan Rainey, Joshua and Maria Carias Porto, Jimm Roberts and John E. Craig have so far spent about $30,000 in legal fees in their efforts to get the circuit court to reverse City Council’s Dec. 2023 decision on the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All package.

The zoning reform package was unanimously approved last year by City Council after an extensive public engagement process. It includes citywide changes to single-family zoning, expansion of transit-oriented development, reducing parking requirements for single-family homes and analyzing office-to-residential conversions. The effort is meant to increase affordable housing options, as well as eliminate segregationist zoning practices of the past.

Alexandria attorney Travis MacRae argued that the complainants did not specify in court documents how their individual properties would be impacted by the zoning overhaul.

“It’s just a hypothetical mess of harms they’ve offered,” MacRae said, adding that the Coalition has no standing as a representative residential organization.

The group has been protesting since last August — four months before the package was approved by Council. They allege that City Council and the Planning Commission didn’t follow the city’s Comprehensive Plan when making their approvals, didn’t study transportation, stormwater or other potential impacts and failed to properly notify the public about the changes.

Judge David S. Schell ordered that the group has 30 days to amend their complaint to clearly identify specific harms to their individual properties. Schell otherwise found that the pleadings satisfy the requirements to go to trial.

Schell, who works in Fairfax, was appointed to the case by the Virginia Supreme Court after the city’s circuit court judges recused themselves. It’s the second similar case for Schell, who was brought in for a case against Arlington’s Missing Middle zoning changes after the county’s judges recused themselves.

The group’s attorney Alex Francuzenko said that he was pleased with Schell’s decision. He also said that residents face a significant hardship by only having a 30-day window to lodge legal complaints against zoning cases after their approval by Council.

“We’re pleased with today’s outcome,” Francuzenko said. “The 30 days creates a significant hardship for citizens to challenge these types of ordinances and we feel the court giving us another opportunity to articulate the harm my clients are experiencing and will experience is in the best interest of the citizens of Alexandria.”

Roy Byrd, chair of the Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, says that the cause is prepared to spend $140,000 in legal fees.

“If we win, as I understand it, then the entire ordinance is overturned,” Byrd said. “Then we have to start all over.”