By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Derrick Perkins)
The state Supreme Court ended a contentious, back-and-forth legal battle for control of Wales Alley last week, confirming the Old Dominion Boat Club’s right to the waterfront passageway.
In a major victory for the 133-year-old organization, Virginia’s high court overturned a circuit judge’s decision and enshrined the club’s easement on the alley, which connects Union Street with The Strand and the group’s waterfront parking lot. The decision also settles more than three years of litigation, pitting the club against City Hall.
Though the basis for the disagreement dates back more than two centuries, the legal dispute began in 2010 with Virtue Feed & Grain’s arrival on the waterfront. The restaurant’s backers successfully petitioned city council for permission to build a patio in the alley.
From the start, the boat club’s attorneys warned that attempts to block Wales Alley could end in a lawsuit. The group’s easement lets members use the passageway for getting in and out of their waterfront parking lot.
But officials forged ahead, formally granting Virtue a license for the alley — in return for $52,000 over five years — in June 2010. By then, though, the litigation had begun, forcing the restaurant to delay building the patio.
“Let’s just say I’m not all that worried about what’s been filed,” City Attorney Jim Banks told city councilors at the time.
In retrospect, former City Councilor Frank Fannon believes Banks may have told Alexandria’s top elected officials what they wanted to hear rather than giving them sound legal advice.
“I think what the city attorney needs to do is ... be able to speak clearly to the city council on what is the law, not what the majority wants it to be,” said Fannon, who cast the lone vote against leasing the alley to Virtue.
Fannon, a boat club member, cited two qualms for his dissent: turning public space over to a private business and the cost of the impending litigation.
“I was concerned that we had a public right-of-way and were giving it to a private entity, and on top of that, it didn’t appear we were legally able to do that,” he said. “Both entities spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out the city attorney was wrong.”
Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera figures the cost to taxpayers amounted to no more than $1,000 at most. And, he said, it’s important to remember that the boat club sued City Hall — not the other way around.
The crux of the case, according to Spera, was possession of Wales Alley, not the city’s agreement with Virtue.
“In our mind, we weren’t defending the licensing of the land to Virtue. What we were defending is that it’s a public street, and we can do what we want with it,” Spera said. “It seems to me that if we think it’s a public street, and a private party says it has rights over a public street that we don’t recognize, we’re going to defend it.”
City Hall and the boat club enjoyed victories and defeats as the case wound its way — not once, but twice — to the state Supreme Court. The latest ruling agrees that while the alley is public, and therefore belongs to City Hall, the boat club retains its easement.
The decision comes as city officials weigh using eminent domain to settle another longstanding dispute with the boat club: control of the group’s riverside parking lot and nearby property along The Strand. Under the Alexandria waterfront redevelopment plan, the fenced-in lot will become a public plaza; the other portion of the club’s property is needed for flood-mitigation efforts.
While the decision to give Virtue rights to use Wales Alley occurred well before city council adopted the controversial land-use plan, Spera said it was clear at the time that the passageway would be critical in opening up the waterfront.
Now that rights to the cut-through are settled, it becomes part of a larger discussion for the future of the boat club’s shoreline property.
“At the end of the day, this doesn’t really change very much. We still have to — in the broader context of the waterfront plan and what happens at the foot of King Street — resolve these, all of these, claims of property rights,” Spera said. “With respect to the result of the case, the [state Supreme Court] ruled. You can’t go anywhere else.
“What the Supreme Court says, goes, and we have to abide by that. In my mind it just becomes part of a series of questions that have to be answered.”