By Chris Teale (Photo/City of Alexandria)
City council rejected at its December 12 public hearing the appeal to prevent the owners of two adjacent properties in the Clover-College Park neighborhood from dividing their lots into three after fevered debate from both sides and among councilors, who once again wrestled with the process involved in approving the subdivision.
Councilors voted 6-1 to approve the proposed subdivision of 809 and 811 Vassar Road by applicants Stephen and Mary Hales, after the planning commission returned a 5-1 rejection of the appeal at its November 5 public hearing. Vice Mayor
Allison Silberberg was the lone dissenting vote among city councilors.
The case first came before council for a public hearing in June, when it voted to remand the proposal back to the city planning commission for further discussion and analysis by city staff. Several months after those original discussions, city councilors still struggled with how to apply the language of the city’s zoning ordinance and the process as a whole.
“If it truly is a ministerial act, we have to make it ministerial,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson. “We have to make the analysis ministerial, because it’s not today. I don’t know where that leaves us on this case. We don’t have clarity right now.”
“I agree that the standard is a devilishly difficult one to deal with, and it’s no surprise that we’re getting different approaches and different standards with different cases because it is so hard to translate into action,” said City Councilor Tim Lovain. “It’s a struggle for the staff, it’s a struggle for the planning commission. It’s a struggle for us, it’s a struggle for the neighbors and the people of Alexandria, the citizens, as they try and understand it and apply it and try to figure out precedent when the precedents keep changing.”
The appeal was brought by neighbors living within 300 feet of the proposed subdivision. Some accused city staff of only focusing on qualitative measures of whether the subdivision is in keeping with the neighborhood as opposed to quantitative statistics. In measuring whether a subdivision is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, all analysis is done on a qualitative basis.
Opponents raised concerns earlier this year about the proposal’s close proximity to the historic Gerald Ford home, which served briefly in the 1970s as the president’s residence.
But complications arose as the residential zoning for single-family units, of which Vassar Road is a part, codifies that there be a minimum of 40 feet of lot frontage, something the Hales’ application exceeds by 15 feet. Despite meeting the requirement, city staff found that two of the proposed lots would have smaller lot frontage than similarly situated lots in other areas, which drew scorn from opponents.
“Making the decision to ignore lot frontage and to rely primarily on qualitative factors is highly subjective,” said resident Deborah Nagle. “It is arbitrary and capricious to summarily ignore lot frontage as part of the analysis, the factor that produces numbers that would allow you to make an objective comparison.”
“We feel there’s almost a bait-and-switch going on here,” said resident Tim Lloyd, one of the proposal’s opponents. “We have some numbers, it fails. We have some new numbers, it fails. But you know what? There’s abunch of other assessments they can look at and it passes.”
Those accusations brought a stinging rebuke from applicant Mary Hales, who noted the exceedance of the lot frontage requirement as part of the zoning ordinance for the R-8 zone.
“The neighbors can get up and give you all the numbers they want, but they have an agenda,” she said. “They obviously don’t want it to pass. But the people who are neutral third parties who have no say in this except for to look at your ordinance and what has actually been codified, say it is in character and it fits [the residential] zoning.”
It was due to the frontage concerns that Silberberg said she had to vote against the subdivision, although she said it brought into conflict two of her major points of emphasis in city council: the rights of property owners and the protection of the character of local neighborhoods. She added that this case’s impact on the community was particularly saddening.
“One thing that concerns me is how the neighborhood has been contentious with each other — I suppose is the right phrase — for quite a while now,” Silberberg said. “Speaking as a citizen and as a member of the council, it concerns me going forward although I think today has been really civil.”
Councilors agreed that the process must be refined and re-evaluated for future subdivision cases, something Mayor Bill Euille said is “never easy.”
“In my view, the way the law’s written right now, we cannot reasonably say that this applicant for subdivision has not met these criteria given the way the language is written right now,” Wilson said. “We have created a playing field to analyze this, but that playing field is not really codified in the code. A lot of this we’ve created as a process we’ve created to try to come up with a way to analyze this stuff.”