The more the merrier? Council approves summer pause to limits on Old Town events

The more the merrier? Council approves summer pause to limits on Old Town events

By Denise Dunbar |

Large events of 500 or more people could be allowed in Old Town on consecutive weekends throughout this summer after City Council approved a waiver to a 13-year-old policy at its June 13 legislative meeting.

The prior policy dates back to January 2010, when City Council passed the city’s Special Events Policies and Procedures, which limited events with an expected attendance of more than 500 people to no more than every other weekend throughout the year. It defined a weekend as running from 5 p.m. on a Friday through 6 p.m. on a Sunday.

Though large events on consecutive weekends are not currently scheduled for this summer, the temporary waiver would enable the Special Events Committee to approve them, according to Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities.

“This was a just in case kind of thing in case something came up at the last minute and the Special Events Committee wanted to have the event and we just didn’t want to be in violation of the policy,” Ruggiero said at the June 13 meeting.

Councilor John Chapman, who was the only member to vote against the temporary suspension of the policy, questioned why the request was being made.

“So it seems because we don’t have anything on the calendar, this seems a bit odd,” Chapman said. “Have we done this every summer, saying ‘Hey, Council is going to be gone on break. Let’s put the waiver out there just in case?’”

Ruggiero admitted that this is the first time city staff have requested a summertime waiver to the policy. She said the request is a precursor to a permanent change to the special events policy that city staff plan to bring before City Council this fall.

“We had anticipated bringing the full policy before this so this is really just a substitute for bringing the full policy forward for review and approval just in case,” Ruggiero said.

Chapman said residents have raised concerns about traffic and parking surrounding events.

“When you guys do come forward with a final proposal, is there going to be anything in it that speaks to concerns around parking and policy adjustments we can do there?” Chapman asked.

Ruggiero did not directly answer Chapman’s question or indicate that any policy changes to parking and traffic are part of staff’s planning for the final policy.

“So, we’ve added some members to the Special Events Committee from the city’s parking enforcement, and multimodal transportation folks are on there,” Ruggiero said. “So they’re working with the special events organizers and helping them get the word out for events as to how [to use] other means to get to events. Parking garages and things like that [would be] part of the event organizer’s public communications strategy and marketing efforts.”

Chapman expressed dissatisfaction with Ruggiero’s answer and with the contents of the waiver proposal.

“The reason I asked that question is I didn’t see anything in this specific docket item about that piece as well. And so if we gave that ability to have that waiver, Council would sort of be guessing what we’re doing as far as dealing with those parking impacts and people impacts as well. Not guessing, let me say that correctly, just kind of leaving that to staff with no engagement at all,” Chapman said.

Ruggiero said current guidelines should address Chapman’s concerns.

“Well, the special events policy is still in force and the guidelines around that are still in place for event organizers. So, while we might not know … each event organizer is given the same guidelines and regulations to follow for their events and we would just make sure that would happen if an event were to come up over the summer,” Ruggiero said.

Councilor Kirk McPike asked when the revised final policy proposal would come before Council. “Do we have a timetable for that yet?” McPike asked. City Manager Jim Parajon said a few details are still being finalized in the permanent proposal.

“I’m not sure but I think pretty soon after [the summer council] break. Quite frankly, the staff is pretty close to having it. There’s some elements that might take a bit more time to digest,” Parajon said. “Probably the end of September or into October.”

McPike said he was concerned that City Council was considering the summertime waiver before public engagement had taken place.

“We’re waiving this policy while a permanent policy is being developed. And I’m curious what sort of public discussion and input was brought in for discussion or consideration of this waiver of if people had been met with,” McPike said.

Ruggiero admitted that there had been no public engagement yet.

“We haven’t had a chance to talk about this waiver … ,” Ruggiero said.

Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said in an interview that OTCA leadership had received a vague email from Ruggiero about pending possible changes to the events policy. Callahan said Deputy City Manager Emily Baker then contacted her about the proposal.

“Emily, in a very professional manner, reached out and I was advised there would be a careful study in the fall,” Callahan said in the interview.

Callahan questioned whether large events bring enough spending to Alexandria to offset the disruption and costs associated with additional policing needs, trash overflow and strains on traffic and parking.

Callahan said some years ago she asked a City Council member, who she declined to name, how much money the city made from large events.

“Not much,” she said the councilor replied. “Ice cream and popcorn.”