Former planning commission vice chairman Stewart Dunn dead at 87

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By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)

Former planning commission vice chairman Stewart Dunn, who was involved in civic life and served on numerous other city commissions for decades, died September 27 from complications following a heart procedure. He was 87.

Dunn moved to Alexandria in 1980, and served on the city’s human rights commission and was vice chairman of the board of zoning appeals. He served on the planning commission from 1995 until earlier this year.

“What an unthinkable loss,” Mayor Allison Silberberg wrote in an email to supporters. “We will all miss Stew’s brilliant mind, deep knowledge and clever turn of a phrase, not to mention his devotion to our city. He was a
friend to all.”

Dunn was born and raised in Pittsburgh, one of five children. He graduated from Yale University in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, then from Harvard Law School in 1954, where he earned an LLB, magna cum laude, and was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.

After three years in the U.S. Army, Dunn decided to pursue a legal career in the Washington, D.C. region. He spent more than 50 years as an attorney at Ivins, Phillips & Barker, focusing on estate planning and business tax matters at a firm that engages in federal income tax, employee benefits and estate and gift tax law.

He lived with his first wife in Washington and Arlington before moving to Potomac, Md. His wife died in 1975, and then Dunn married Loti Kennedy Savage in 1978. They lived in Potomac while they remodeled their house in Alexandria to accommodate the five children they had between them. They settled in the Port City in 1980.

After moving to Alexandria, Dunn joined the Old Town Civic Association and served as its treasurer, and served on the board of Hopkins House for a decade. He was appointed to the city’s human rights commission in 1983, then served on the board of zoning appeals, where he was vice chairman. He also served on a commission that revised the city’s zoning code, whose recommendations were adopted by city council in 1992.

Dunn was appointed to the planning commission in 1995, where he gained a reputation as a thoughtful commissioner who was keen to listen to every viewpoint.

He voted against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office project due to fears that it would lead to a dead zone of inactivity in Carlyle during the evenings, and would sometimes abstain from votes if he objected to aspects of the process that brought a project before the commission.

“Stew was always really thoughtful about his deliberations and took into account the viewpoint of all of the members of the public that would come and appear before us on an issue,” said current planning commission vice chairman Nathan Macek. “He really took the time to think through their views before he would come to a decision about an issue.”

In addition to his work with the city, Dunn was a lifelong advocate for civil rights and civil liberties, and was elected to the board of the Virginia affiliate of the ACLU in 1991. Macek said Dunn would bring that background to planning commission deliberations as well, especially on the issue of signage and the First Amendment as well as other subjects.

“There is so much one can say about him personally and professionally,” said ACLU Virginia executive director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga in a statement. “None of the words would be adequate to convey how deep and profound is our loss.

“Stew understood the core essence of the ACLU’s principles like very few people — that an open and compassionate mind combined with a strong sense of the value of individual rights and opinion will yield the best result in most situations.”

Dunn also was a lover of history, and spent more than 20 years as a trustee of the Historic Alexandria Foundation. His wife Loti is an active volunteer with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, and several years ago he established four annual scholarships in perpetuity for graduates of T.C. Williams High School.

Dunn was recognized as a Living Legend in 2011. In his nomination for the slate of awards that honor those who have contributed to civic life in the city, former planning commission chairman John Komoroske said he “assisted that body in every meeting with his uncanny attention to both microscopic detail and the global goals of our planning process, treating applicants, the public, staff and fellow commissioners with the tactfulness of a senior diplomat, but with an iron will to do the right thing for the city.”

Macek said Dunn will be a tough act to follow in city life.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before we look around and say, ‘Well who fills Stew Dunn’s shoes?’ Nobody can fill Stew Dunn’s shoes,” Macek said. “He just had this demeanor that commanded respect. He was very soft-spoken in the way he approached issues at the planning commission, but everybody leaned in and listened and was curious to know how Stew would react to certain issues.”

Dunn is survived by his widow, Loti, his children Chris and Tim, Loti’s children Eliza and Rhett and six grandchildren. He was prede- ceased by son Anthony, who died in an automobile accident in 1980. A memorial service is planned for sometime before December.

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