Our View: ‘By right’ is usually wrong

Our View: ‘By right’ is usually wrong
Alexandria City Hall. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

An increasing number of proposals are coming before City Council that, if passed, would result in “by right” changes to buildings in Alexandria. Many of these proposals would allow for significant increases in building size with no formal public input.

This is, simply, wrong.

Alexandria is already the most densely populated city in Virginia, with an average population per square mile of around 11,000. The Port City has increased in population by around 18% over the last decade, and the inordinate number of huge projects currently in the pipeline will swell those numbers.

First, a brief primer in terminology, process and procedure:

• Alexandria has a Special Use Permit process that most current developments or redevelopments must go through.

• The SUP process includes multiple points for the public to have input into proposed projects. Depending on the project, this may include public outreach and information sessions and approval by the Board of Architectural Review, the Planning Commission and City Council. Residents are generally allowed to speak at public hearings along the way.

• With “by right” developments, city staff can simply approve applications up to set limits, and the public is shut out of weighing in on projects that have the potential to significantly impact their homes, businesses and neighborhoods.

The phrase “by right” begs the question: whose rights?

City staff and elected officials supposedly work for the public, not the other way around. Generally, the boss gets a say in big decisions: Impactful change is not ordinarily imposed on those who pay the bills by those who work for them. And seemingly small enlargements on a building can affect the person who lives next door or the business down the street.

The rightful boss, the public, is not clamoring for an increase in development projects in which they have no say. So why are our public servants, in text amendments galore, trying to shut the public out of decisions that will bring our already overcrowded city to the brink of un-livability?

Several zoning text amendments that would increase “by right” approvals, i.e. decisions without public hearings or a formal public input process, will be considered by City Council at Saturday’s public hearing.

Two stand out. The first, docket item eight, regarding school size, has received considerable attention. The other, docket item 12, innocuously titled “Small Business Practical Updates,” has not.

To their great credit, Planning Commission Vice Chair Melissa McMahon and Commissioner David Brown led the push-back at the Planning Commission’s Sept. 1 meeting. The commission voted unanimously to remove the “by right” aspect from city staff’s proposal.

Under the astonishingly brazen staff proposal, public school buildings roughly double the current allowed size could have been approved administratively, without a formal public input process.

For example, under the staff proposal, Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Old Town, surrounded by two-story townhouses, could have been expanded to about double its current footprint without the neighbors – whose homes would have been dwarfed by such a massive structure – having any say in the decision.

But here’s the problem: City Council isn’t bound by the Planning Commission’s decision, meaning this issue is not yet settled.

How any of our city leaders could think that a school costing at least tens of millions of taxpayer dollars should be approved without taxpayer input truly belongs in the theater of the absurd. And yet, this will be debated on Saturday.

Less obviously appalling but still of great concern, the proposed zoning text amendment in docket item 12 would allow “by right” approval of: many new restaurants, expansion of restaurants and numerous other businesses of up to 33%, a doubling of outdoor seating at many restaurants, outdoor food and craft markets and convenience stores.

These don’t sound dramatic, but if you live or work near a business falling in these categories, you will have no say in their opening or enlargement. Which brings us back to the question: why?

Many years ago, Alexandria had a reputation of being unfriendly to business. It’s now gaining the reputation of being unfriendly to its own residents.