Opinion: Making waves on the waterfront, and for what?

Opinion: Making waves on the waterfront, and for what?

To the editor:

The protest petition presented against waterfront up-zoning was not some last-minute, last-ditch effort. It was “timely filed” as lawyers would say. There is nothing exotic about these petitions.  They are described in our zoning law. The zoning code also describes how petitions are to be handled by the local government.

Virginia protects the rights of property owners. When a property’s level of density and its possible uses are changed, abutting property owners (defined in our zoning code as property owners living within 300 feet) have special rights not available to others. As very near neighbors, they can protest if they think the value of their property or their enjoyment of it might be lessened by the new zoning.

When signature gatherers approached nearby neighbors of the three sites to be upzoned by the waterfront plan, about 215 of those neighbors, including owners of commercial properties, signed the petition. That tally was about 15 percent more than needed. The petitions were presented to the city planning director January 19, giving her ample time to consult the city attorney and rule whether or not they were valid.

City staff seems to have waited until January 21, just before the public hearing on the waterfront plan began, to rule the petition invalid. This ruling was based on a legal interpretation offered by the city attorney, not, as is normally the case, on an insufficient number of signatures. His ruling will be the subject of a decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals and possibly the District Court.

The zoning law requires the Board of Zoning Appeals to determine the validity of the rejection before the public hearing is held. The petition signers are analogous to the president of the United States when he vetoes an act of Congress. The council may override the petition signers only with a supermajority vote.

The city did not follow the procedure in the code and proceeded without a Board of Zoning Appeals determination. The subsequent 5-2 council vote fell short of a supermajority.

Unless the Board of Zoning Appeals or the District Court rules the petition invalid, there is no new plan for the waterfront. All this turmoil may have been for nothing. Those who insisted on going forward with a plan that had too little community support have only themselves to blame for a situation that is, at the least, unsettled.

– Katy Cannady