Bill McMorris | Old Dominion Watchdog
ALEXANDRIA — The City of Alexandria’s threat to seize a parking lot owned by a local boat club has led one state lawmaker to reconsider his position on eminent domain.
When an amendment to the state constitution limiting the scope of property seizure was introduced in the House in February, Delegate David Englin, D-Alexandria, joined 14 Democrats in opposition.
“I am a strong supporter of private property rights, but I thought Virginia already enshrined that principle and provided some of the strongest rights in the country,” he said.
Englin, who represents parts of Alexandria, said he may become a yes vote when the amendment comes up again in the 2012 session, after the city threatened to use eminent domain to seize a parking lot belonging to the Old Dominion Boat Club.
“The Alexandria City Council is being heavy-handed in using that tactic against the Old Dominion Boat Club,” he said. “I may change my vote just to send a message.”
To change the state constitution, amendments must pass the state Senate and House of Delegates in consecutive sessions.
In July, City Attorney Jim Banks threatened to use eminent domain to seize some parking spaces at the foot of King Street, including Wales Alley, a piece of boat club property which has been used as a public right of way for much of its existence.*
“We talked about that possibility at a press conference in July,” Banks said. “That was simply about the city using eminent domain to take back control of its street.”
Banks later backtracked from his July remarks, but the damage was done, according to Mike Zarlenga, a boat club member.
The boat club fears its 65-space parking lot, which rests on prime real estate at the edge of the Potomac River, could be next if negotiations with the city fail. The boat club has used the site as a boat launch for more than 70 years, but the city wants to use the area for a public park as part of its Waterfront Development Plan.
“The city brings up eminent domain, because they want to spend the boat club out of existence. They’ll keep us in the courts, paying legal fees while they spend taxpayer’s money,” said Zarlenga.
Zarlenga has had his own brush with the city’s planning process. In 2007, he was blocked from expanding his hunting goods store on King Street after a lengthy architectural review. Strapped for cash from buying the building to house the store, he leased it to Old Town Alexandria’s first sex shop, causing a wave of controversy in the historic shopping district. He said the city’s planners are forcing the same kind of stress onto the community with the boat club.
“The boat club has offered alternatives to just wiping out the lot, but the (City) Council has this single-mindedness,” he said.
Banks said the boat club’s fears are not grounded in fact.
“We have never threatened eminent domain on the parking lot, in public or private,” he said. “There has been no authorization (for eminent domain) from the city council. I have not asked for authorization.”
Banks told Old Dominion Watchdog that talks between the two parties remained “amicable.” Neither he nor attorneys representing the club would discuss the details of negotiations, which are slated to continue until Oct. 31.
The battle over the club’s parking lot has been brewing since the city decided to redevelop the waterfront, a popular tourist destination, in 2004.
Eminent domain has been a hot topic issue, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that governments could seize private property if owners were fairly compensated and the seizure could bring about public good or higher tax revenue.
The amendment brought by Delegate Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, would extend the eminent domain restrictions the state passed in 2007 to the state constitution. If passed, the amendment would force the state to compensate private owners for lost revenue if, for example, new road construction hurt access to a business. It also would prevent property from being seized if it was to be used for private gain, which could prevent developers from turning to the state to seize private properties to build revenue-generating enterprises like shopping malls.
Englin’s vote is unlikely to affect the amendment’s future. It passed with large majorities in the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate in February. That doesn’t mean he is taking the vote lightly.
“I’m hesitant about any constitutional amendment … (but) there should be an extremely high bar for seizing someone’s private property” he said. “I am not yet resolved.”
Lawmakers will revisit the amendment when session reconvenes in January. If passed, it will then appear before voters on the November 2012 ballot.
*CORRECTION: Banks threatened eminent domain over parking space at the foot of King Street and boat club property in Wales Alley; not the parking lot itself, as originally stated in the article.