A model of the waterfront plan is displayed at Alexandria City Hall.
Do citizens of Alexandria have the right to file a protest petition challenging changes to the text of the city's zoning code? That's at the core of two legal challenges, one in the Alexandria Circuit Court and another in the Virginia Supreme Court. Now city council members have changed the city code to clear up any confusion — citizens do not have the ability to force a super majority vote to change the text of the city's zoning ordinance.
"This is a prospective step," says Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera. "This is not something that's designed to go back and undo or change whatever is going on in the litigation."
But city attorney James Banks says clarifying the code is a prospective step that may have a retrospective influence in the Circuit Court case.
"By clarifying that confusion, we at least potentially render the pending litigation moot."
And because Virginia Supreme Court justices have already considered that case and returned it to the Circuit Court, "we therefore think that the Supreme Court matter would similarly go away," says Banks.
That means Old Town residents who want to challenge the increased density in the plan may be out of luck — if the courts agree with the city. City Council members have given the green light to allow developers to almost triple density at three sites compared to what's there now. Many neighbors say that's just too big, including three women who are behind both of the legal challenges. Attorney Roy Shannon is representing them in Circuit Court and before the Virginia Supreme Court.
"The city has the ability to change the rules," says Shannon. "They are allowed to, but the problem is when you change the rules in the middle of the game. That's now allowed."
Opponents say restricting the ability of citizens to file protest petitions will limit property rights. Supporters say it was just a technical change clarifying extraneous language in the code. Justices of the Virginia Supreme Court are expected to hear the case this summer.