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In Virginia, one law firm is at the center of a brewing storm over the Alexandria waterfront.
When Alexandria residents brought a lawsuit against City Hall to challenge the controversial waterfront plan, city leaders hired McGuireWoods to represent them in court. That same law firm is now representing a number of developers who seek to benefit from the controversial zoning change, which almost triples the amount of density at three sites compared to what's there now and overturns a longstanding ban on hotels.
Opponents of the waterfront development plan are crying foul, saying that the dual role represents a conflict of interest.
Alexandria City Attorney James Banks, a former partner at McGuireWoods declined to be interviewed for this story, although he issued a written statement saying he doesn't believe his relationship with the firm presents the appearance of a conflict.
"He used to work there. He has no ongoing financial interest in that firm. If he had some ongoing interest, then it would be subject to review under conflict of interest laws," says Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera.
But former Alexandria assistant city attorney Barbara Beach wonders why the city hired a firm that regularly represents developers.
"There's no question that McGuireWoods is a good firm. But why would the city hire a firm that comes before the city on behalf of clients asking for their clients to have permission to do things?", she says.
When Beach was town attorney in Herndon and Leesburg, she says, she would hire firms to represent the local governments that did not represent developers. Legal experts say the situation presents to no conflict of interest, though, because the city and the developer have essentially the same interest — develop the waterfront.
"There is a congruence of interests right now. That is to say the city believes that it is in its interests to do what the developer wants to do," says George Mason law professor Michael Krauss.
But many neighbors say what the developers want is not what the city should want.
"What is in the interest of the citizenry as a whole is not going to be in the interest of the citizenry as a whole is not going to be identical with the interest of the developer," says Bert Ely, one of the city's leading critics on the waterfront plan. "Other than that, you might as well give the developer whatever they want carte blanche. You want to build a 20-story building? Go to it."
Still, realtor Cindy Golubin says citizens should be thankful that developers are interested in Alexandria. "You have to go back to history in this city. The same lawyer represented everybody back in the 70s and 80s. So don't degrade the lawyers. It's because they're experts," she says.
Old Town resident Mark Mueller disagrees. "Who does the city work for? They should be working for the taxpayers, the citizens. So how can the developers goals be congruent with the city if the citizens they are representing and are paying their paychecks are opposed to it?", he says.
All three developers represented by McGuireWoods are hoping to move forward with development, even though the neighbors they are opposing in court—on behalf of the city—hope to derail the process.
Read more at the Alexandria Gazette.