For Historic Boat Club, Smoother Sailing May Be Ahead

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For Historic Boat Club, Smoother Sailing May Be Ahead
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The case gathered cobwebs in Washington, D.C.s U.S. District Court for 35 years before an opinion was reached late last week, but the Old Dominion Boat Club was finally granted sovereignty over its invaluable waterfront property at 1 King St. in Old Town sort of.

The propertys dominion has been a point of contention between the federal government and the Boat Club since 1973 when the dispute entered court. While over the years the City of Alexandria expressed interest in acquiring the social and athletic club for waterfront development, the club maintained its right to ownership. The federal government claimed dominion over the clubs lots also, arguing that 18th-century laws made them part of Washington, D.C., a federal enclave.

City officials have wanted to build an uninhibited corridor of park space and retail development with a river view for decades, but the private club literally stands in its way, its two lots plopped right at the bottom of King Street between the marina and Waterfront Park.

All the while, Dominion Boat Club members never planned on budging. The clubs Old Town roots go back 128 years, and it has sat at the foot of King Street since 1923, before the Masonic Temple was built.

The city keeps saying, Well we cant make a waterfront plan [with the boat club in the way]. Well theyve had 200 years to do it, longtime club member and Board of Architectural Review Chairman Tom Hullfish said. There are a lot of demands on the city but they have to realize that the horse is already gone and theyre just trying to close the barn door now.

The Feds hopes of somehow attaining the land rested in seemingly archaic jurisdictional laws involving Virginia, the District, the Potomac River and the high water mark (essentially, the point where the Potomacs water met Virginias land) from 1791 when Virginia and Maryland ceded land that established the District of Columbia. Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., the federal judge who released the opinion, even had to refer to English common law before reaching his conclusion.

According to the judgment, Old Dominion Boat Club now owns both of its lots the actual building and private parking lot and the rights to portions of the riverbed. However, the decision states that there is still a dispute of material fact involving the clubs private parking lot, the citys major interest.

To have reached this stage of resolution certainly lifts our spirits, but there is still much to be done, said Bud Hart, who has been the Boat Clubs attorney on the case since 1980. The Court has directed the parties to do several things over the next two weeks, all of them aimed at resolving this litigation in its entirety. There are several loose ends that we, collaborating with the Department of Justice, will identify for the Courts consideration.

The discrepancy was between the federal government and the boat club, but that does not negate the City of Alexandrias stake in the matter. Its interest in the property is well documented. The city sided with the National Park Service, the federal body most interested in the land, throughout the process as a minor player, Mayor Bill Euille said.

There are no quarrels over rights and ownership for the boat club to be at that waterfront site, Euille said. Thats not to say that the two bodies cant get together and talk about it under a different mechanism. [The Boat Club] is not something were looking to take by eminent domain nor has the city offered any money. The ruling now clarifies ownership. Mayor Euille added that the National Park Service could make an appeal.   

Though the Boat Clubs legal status has been clarified, it is not yet out of limbo. The dispute regarding the clubs parking lot remains enough of an issue for Judge Kennedy to grant the judgment summary only in part. The club, however, is closer to being a private Alexandria property, pure and simple; it is subject to the same planning, zoning and regulatory laws as any citizen-owned property, making the future of the club an open book. But Hart says that the judgment did not alter that standing.

The decision does not affect the citys ability to use any city land for development or other uses as it sees fit, Hart said. As a waterfront landowner, Old Dominion Boat Club will always be interested in cooperating with the city in development of its overall waterfront plans. As Justice Holmes once put it, A river is not just an amenity, it is a treasure. It should be treated as such by the city and all waterfront owners.

Mayor Euille, who discussed the matter with the city council and city attorney in a closed-door executive session Tuesday night, alluded to the citys interest in the property Wednesday. Though action on the citys part has been tabled, he said, the boat clubs property is its own.   

From the citys perspective we still have an interest in the vista there particularly the parking lot, Euille said. Its never been about the building itself; its been about the property. The boat club can just say Thanks but no thanks.

[The courts decision] sucks any sense of urgency out of the case, Hart said. No predator is roaming the street. No one is lying in a hospital bed wondering if his hospital bills are going to get paid. No family has been evicted from its home and put out on the street.

The controversy stemming from when King Charles I granted the Potomacs riverbed to Lord Baltimore in 1731 predates the founding of Alexandria, the District, the Old Dominion Boat Club and even America. But despite the somewhat ambiguous judgment, it seems that smoother sailing lies ahead for the Old Dominion Boat Club. 

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