Resident-filed lawsuit against 301 N. Fairfax St. project to go before Circuit Court

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Resident-filed lawsuit against 301 N. Fairfax St. project to go before Circuit Court
A resident-submitted diagram showing the averages of floors in buildings around the then-proposed development. (Map/Scott Corzine)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

Tensions ran high at the Saturday City Council public hearing as Council voted to affirm an ordinance related to 301 N. Fairfax St. and its redevelopment, notwithstanding vocal opposition from residents in attendance.

The atmosphere of the hearing was already charged with activism from various groups in the audience. Advocates from “Stop the Arena” and “Ceasefire Now” were in attendance and spoke at both the beginning and end of the hearing, in addition to residents who opposed the 301 N. Fairfax St. project. The audience broke into clapping and heckling on occasion, which led Mayor Justin Wilson to warn those in attendance several times against engaging in disruptions.

The proposed redevelopment on 301 N. Fairfax St. has been a contentious subject for nearly a year. As previously reported by the Times, a petition opposing the redevelopment garnered more than 900 signatures from residents and necessitated a supermajority vote by Council to pass the project. This meant if two Councilors voted against the project, it would have been defeated.

The redevelopment nonetheless passed at the January 20 public hearing by a 6-1 vote, with Councilor John Taylor Chapman the only member who voted “no.” A lawsuit was filed by residents against the city shortly after.

Residents voiced their frustrations with the project during the public speaking period.

“This is a single use project and is governed by section 305A that limits the FAR [floor area ratio] to 1.5,” resident Tom Foley said. “That is what the circuit court is expected to decide and is what we requested from the director of planning many months ago. If he would have acted, we wouldn’t be in court today. Please delay the approval of this [ordinance] and let the court rule on this matter.”

Resident Nanci Petit also voiced her frustration with Council’s responsiveness to residents.

“Most of you are your phones, you’re not even looking up. You’re rolling your eyes, and it makes me wonder how it is you could be so disconnected – particularly with what you’ve heard in over [the past] eight months of 301 N. Fairfax, but also from others today wanting to stop the arena,” Petit said.

The developer’s attorney, Catharine Puskar, was the final speaker. She acknowledged the lawsuit residents filed an urged Council to reaffirm the ordinance.

“The simple act of filing a lawsuit does not stop or change anything. Your approval of the project on Jan. 20, 2024, is presumed correct and remains valid,” Puskar said. “I trust that this Council understands its charges and that you’ll adopt these implementation ordinances.”

Hisses erupted from the audience following Puskar’s comments, which led to a sharp rebuke by Wilson after multiple warnings to the audience not to disrupt.

“Guys, literally come on. I spent, like, an hour with a bunch of preschoolers yesterday and they were behaved better than this,” Wilson said. “Let people say their piece and move on. Is this necessary?”

Prior to the final vote, Chapman said he recognized the importance of community feedback, but urged that dialogue remain respectful.

“I want to be very clear as probably the only member that may vote against this,” Chapman said. “I do not take lightly the kind of personal attacks against the character of any member of this body.”

Chapman dispelled the notion that Council was not paying attention or being dismissive of residents.

“We listen with our ears and that’s what we’re doing. We might be taking notes, frankly for some folks we might be fact checking what they say,” Chapman said. “If I’m not looking at you, it does not mean that I don’t hear you. … Please do not take it as an offense if we’re not totally zoned in exactly to every word that you are stating, because we may be trying to make sure that we follow up with you, that we understand better.”

Council approved the implementation ordinances by the same 6-1 vote, with Chapman again casting the dissenting vote.

Details of the lawsuit 

By Caitlyn Meisner

A group of four property owners have filed a lawsuit against the Alexandria City Council, the City of Alexandria, the LLC attached to the project and the project owner, stating the decision made by Council on January 20 was adopted in contradiction to the section 5-305 of the city’s zoning ordinance. The plaintiffs are appealing the decision made by Council.

The plaintiffs’ main complaint in the lawsuit, of which the Times was able to obtain a copy, is the increase in the allowable floor area ratio and rezoning the area to a “commercial residential mixed use-high” from “commercial downtown.” The maximum FAR previously allowed for the area is 1.25 – either commercial or residential – with an additional 0.25 of retail use in certain cases. The developer asked for a 2.5 FAR, which was approved by Council by a 6-1 vote.

The plaintiffs requested the following of the Alexandria Circuit Court, where they filed suit:

  • Declaration of the special use permit as void “ab initio,” meaning it was void from inception or the beginning;
  • Enjoin the city from issuing any permits for the 301 N. Fairfax Project or taking any further action on the SUP; and
  • Award other and further relief as the court deems appropriate.
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