Letter to the Editor: Correcting the record on La Bergerie

Letter to the Editor: Correcting the record on La Bergerie
Del Ray Cafe owners Laurent and Margaret Janowsky had been working to reopen La Bergerie at 329 N. Washington St. for more than three years. They announced June 18 they can no longer move forward with the relocation. (File photo)

To the editor:

In 2014, more than 125 Old Town property owners petitioned city council to deny an application to turn a historic house at the corner of Princess and Washington Streets into a hotel and 149-seat restaurant and bar, with one-third of the seats outdoors in the midst of private residences, featuring music, entertainment and parties.

Council nevertheless changed the applicable zoning and granted the application, which was brought by a company owned by Margaret Janowsky and her husband. Janowsky spoke at length at a public hearing, emphasizing that she was the daughter of former mayor and state senator Patricia Ticer, and granddaughter of another former mayor of Alexandria.

We are among 24 of those property owners who on Nov. 17, 2014, as the Virginia Code provides, brought suit to challenge the action for many procedural and substantive departures from Virginia law, some of which were even admitted, pointing out issues of noise, light, garbage, traffic, parking and degradation of a historic residential neighborhood. The city, which employs a staff of attorneys who represent it in court, chose in this instance to defend the council ruling instead by hiring an expensive outside law firm, entirely at taxpayer expense, and at no cost whatsoever to the Janowskys.

Nevertheless, although that large and experienced law firm fully defended every aspect of the council ruling, the Janowskys through their company, which had not been sued, joined in the court proceedings as well. They hired their own attorney, who sometimes participated in additional motions, briefing and discovery, while the city’s lawyers continued as lead counsel.

The court rejected their numerous efforts to dismiss the case before trial, holding that our lawsuit properly stated valid claims. When the property owners sought ordinary discovery, many objections were raised, necessitating motions and delays. Most of these disputes were resolved by the court in the property owners’ favor.

The litigation tactics of the lawyers defending the ruling caused several delays in the lawsuit. Indeed it was the city’s outside lawyers, who were pressing the Janowskys’ position, who repeatedly sought continuances – including one on the very eve of trial, which the trial court denied after having previously granted their other requests for extensions of time.

Trial was held in circuit court in June 2016. The Janowskys’ attorney attended the trial but presented no witnesses. The court in October 2016 ruled that any violations by council were not significant enough to meet the very high standard for reversal.

Proceedings then ended, except for the property owners’ petition for appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, to which the Janowskys did not even need to respond, as once again the city, this time with a second large outside law firm, undertook to respond on behalf of the Janowskys’ legal position.

That petition was denied on Oct. 27, 2017. The Janowskys’ sole, and duplicative, submission to that court had been filed in March 2017. Thus any occasion they had to incur further voluntary litigation expenses ended more than fifteen months ago.

In these circumstances it is surprising that Mr. and Ms. Janowsky, as reported on June 18, 2018, suddenly issued a press release announcing that their hotel-restaurant project recently – and for reasons undisclosed – has been abandoned, and claiming vaguely to be “in effect” bankrupted as a result of choosing to participate in litigation that was active for about eighteen months in 2015 and 2016.

We are relieved to learn that the Janowskys’ planned destruction of our neighborhood will not occur after all. But given their recent public statements about their reasons for making that business decision long after our lawsuit had ended, several observations are in order:

• The Janowskys for years have operated a successful restaurant in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood. They offer no evidence whatsoever to support assertions of dire financial straits, nor that their choice to participate in this lawsuit had any effect on their deciding not to operate a hotel and restaurant at Princess and Washington.

• The Janowskys did not need to expend substantial amounts on litigation. The city hired and paid for the expensive lawyers who defended the council action as lead counsel from beginning to end.

• Moreover – and for reasons never explained – the city, instead of using its existing staff of attorneys employed on the city payroll, retained an outside law firm at a reported cost exceeding a million dollars in Alexandria taxpayer dollars. That peculiar and unexplained expenditure amounted to a gift to the Janowskys of the entire cost of defense.

• The Janowskys never were legally impeded from immediately proceeding with their project. The property owners did not seek, and the court never entered, a preliminary injunction. If the Janowskys really were convinced that the case had no merit, they could have gone right ahead with their project.

• Margaret Janowsky’s suggestion that ordinary property owners of Alexandria go to court lightly, and have become a threat to small business, is fanciful.

We make no apology for exercising our rights under the Virginia Code and Constitution to challenge a ruling and present to a court evidence that city council’s actions were unlawful on many grounds. The right to petition for redress of grievances, and the guarantees of due process of law, are older than the Constitution. Indeed, in her sworn testimony in the case, Mayor Allison Silberberg – who voted in favor of the Janowskys’ proposal – said that the plaintiffs in the case “should be thanked for coming forward” and exercising their legal rights.

The Janowskys’ assertions about their choice to incur legal fees, and their claim that their inability to reach a business deal or maintain the confidence of their investors is someone else’s fault, are misdirected.

Our laws authorize that when ordinary citizens believe the government has acted unlawfully to harm them, they can seek a determination from a court. They will not succeed in every case. But the right to present solid evidence and to obtain the determination of the courts is part of what keeps government honest and makes this country free.

-Shirley Rettig, Carolyn Merck, Billie Schaeffer, John Williams, Ellen Mosher, Jamie Steve, Whitney Steve, Ronald Rigby, Hazel Rigby, Courtney Fones, Jane Harter, Carolyn Almassy, Robert Almassy, Cathleen Curtin, Margaret Jane Chiang, Faye Padgett, Rosemary Ann Furfaro, Paul Waldron, Brian Johnson, Sarah Hull, Alexandria