Planning commission approves waterfront plan – again

By Derrick Perkins

After hours of renewed debate about the much-maligned waterfront redevelopment plan, longtime planning commissioner Stewart Dunn stepped down from the podium, grabbed a microphone and circled a model of the city’s future Potomac shoreline.

“I want to point this out: When you look at this [plan] you hear the horrors that have been presented by the waterfront plan as it now stands, but as you look at this it’s hard to see those,” said the normally subdued Dunn. “What we have here is we’re going over the same arguments we were going over before. … As far as compromise — we hear about this compromise — as far as I can see the compromise has been all one way.”

The waterfront plan passed with a 5-2 city council vote more than a year ago after dozens of public meetings, but its approval sparked lawsuits from residents who worry increased density along the Potomac will do more harm than good. Critics so far have successfully argued a last-minute protest petition filed by opponents required a supermajority city council vote for the plan to pass.

A circuit court judge is set to hear arguments from both sides, but city officials last month announced their intention to make an end run on the waterfront. Facing the prospect of years of litigation, Mayor Bill Euille is trying to short-circuit the legal battle by bringing the redevelopment plan back before city council for another vote — this time with a supermajority set to cast ballots in favor of the controversial blueprint.

But the road to city council runs through the planning commission, and on Tuesday, opponents packed a public hearing to plead for more time. Andrew Macdonald, a former vice mayor who helped form the leading opposition group, decried the blueprint.

“The plan, the land use plan … is no legacy for the future whatsoever,” Macdonald said. “You’re putting a nail in the coffin of this historic city.”

Macdonald argued officials crafted the plan without feedback from residents, to the visible annoyance of Eric Wagner, another longtime member of the commission.

“This plan has been through several years of public input,” Wagner said. “The public has spoken, and this is the plan that is now in front of us as a text amendment.”

Though critics raised many of the same concerns discussed in the months leading up to last year’s vote — increased density will create traffic problems, mar the waterfront and give developers a blank check — a few new arguments surfaced during the hours-long meeting.

Bert Ely, a vocal opponent of the plan, joined others in worrying the redevelopment roadmap does not take a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy into account. Another critic, Mark Mueller, urged the commission to defer until the board’s three new members get brought up to speed. And others asked the commission to put the process on hold until after the courts weighed in on the matter.

Their protests fell on deaf ears. The planning commission sent the blueprint to city council with a unanimous vote. The city’s top-elected officials will take up the plan March 16.

Commission members also used the opportunity to reword the ordinance that led to the most serious legal challenge of the plan. Often referred to as a single entity, the waterfront plan is actually two documents. The zoning and density changes are included in what’s known as a text amendment. Officials maintain text amendments cannot be challenged via a protest petition, but opponents successfully argued the reverse before the board of zoning appeals last year.

“All we’re being asked to do is clear up an issue that exists … a drafting error,” Wagner said after residents again urged the commission to keep the wording. “Citizens have a right to be heard, but the minority does not have a right to dictate to the majority what happens in the city. They don’t have that right.”

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