It's a question that rarely arises in a meeting of the Alexandria Planning Commission. But last Thursday night it resonated throughout City Council Chambers by Planning Commissioners and citizens alike. "Where are the police?"
What brought forth the chorus was an item on the Commission's agenda dealing with day-labor agencies and the supposed public disturbance attributed to one in particular located in a residential area. It was the location question that prompted the Department of Planning and Zoning to again seek a text amendment to the City Zoning Ordinance.
"Our neighborhood has suffered a great decline since the Day Labor Agency moved in," Michael Schilee of Pendleton Street told the Commission. "Noise starts at 4 a.m., six days a week. Radios are so loud they drown out television sound in the house. My life has been immeasurably changed."
The primary target of the complaints and the proposed text amendment is ACE Temporaries Inc., located at 717 Pendleton St. The battle has been raging since 1999, when Council and the Commission attempted to pass a text amendment to outlaw such businesses from residential areas of the city.
IN AN OPINION dated June 2, 2003, the Circuit Court of Alexandria found in the case of Ace Temporaries Inc. vs. City that "The city has failed to properly initiate the zoning text amendments," thus the present attempt to do it "properly."
At last Thursday's commission meeting, Barbara Ross, deputy director, Department of Planning and Zoning, stated, "Ace Temporaries is not an approved use." However, City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa advised the Commission that even if the text amendment is approved, nothing can be done to relocate Ace Temporary for 18 months.
His rationale was, "The courts have indicated that a reasonable time is required. And they have indicated that 18 months is a reasonable time."
Frustration grew from several members of the Commission. "Can't we do something else in the meantime?" Commissioner John Komoroske inquired. Pessoa responded by suggesting, "One of the best tools of enforcement is the zoning ordinance."
When questioned if the zoning ordinances were being enforced, Arthur Dahlberg, director, fire and code enforcement, noted, "This area is part of our daily beat." But, upon questioning as to whether it was patrolled at the times residents found most invasive, Dahlberg did not give a specific reply.
"I have witnessed these situations so often. I've heard all this talk, but I haven't heard anything about the Alexandria Police Department taking any action," said Commissioner Jesse Jennings. "They have surveillance capabilities. Why can't they be used in this situation?" he inquired.
Resident complaints are not restricted to loud noise at an early hour. They cover a host of items as outlined in a letter dated Jan. 25, 1999, to Chuck Colton, owner, Ace Temporaries, from Ross.
In that letter she lists the following complaints received by both Planning and Zoning and Citizen Assistance from area residents:
*Public urination and defecation in the alley behind Ace Temporaries;
*Loitering in front of Ace Temporaries and adjacent properties;
*Public drinking in front of Ace Temporaries;
*Litter in front of Ace Temporaries;
*Litter, including beer bottles and cans, in the alley behind Ace Temporaries and on properties; and
*Early-morning congregating and noise in front of Ace Temporaries.
ROSS ALSO NOTED in that letter, "I understand that the Mayor's Office, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, and the Alexandria Police Department have each received citizen complaints."
A petition signed by more than 80 residents of the area was also submitted to both City Council and the Planning Commission in November 2000, listing noise, violence, trash, vulgarity and public alcohol use as complaints against Ace Temporaries and requesting that their request for a special-use permit be denied.
Homeowners also requested that the city install cameras to document the activities in the area attributed to Ace Temporaries. However, Commission H. Stewart Dunn Jr. noted, "The installation of such cameras could set a dangerous precedent."
Speaking for the Del Ray Civic Association, Amy Slack requested the ordinance be amended to provide that no day-labor agency be permitted to operate within 300 feet of any residence. Dunn supported the suggestion and recommended it be part of any motion.
The adoption of the text amendment with the inclusion of Slack's suggestion passed unanimously. The amendment provides the Zoning Ordinance will do the following:
*Permit day-labor agencies only with a special-use permit;
*Limit the zones in which day labor agencies may operate; and
*Require the abatement of existing day-labor agencies.
IN ANOTHER ZONING matter, Carr Homes LLC requested an amendment to the Seminary Hill/Strawberry Hill small area plan chapter of the Master Plan to change the land-use designation of Quaker Ridge from Residential Low to Residential Medium in order to build 25 townhouse units. The height limit would also be changed from 35 feet to 45 feet.
The property in question fronts on Duke Street across from Sunrise Assisted Living. It is presently zoned for six single-family residences. It is bounded by the developments of Colonial Heights, Quaker Village and ARHA housing.
The request originally came before the Commission in October. It was deferred at that time to allow staff and the applicant to provide additional information regarding the proposed density, tree preservation/buffer, parking, the marine-clay-soils-geotechnical studies, traffic and the property that is not part of the assembly, according to a memo by Eileen Fogarty, director, Planning and Zoning, to the Commission.
After delineating the details of each of the subject areas, Fogarty's memo recommended approval of the development Special Use Permit.
"The proposed development is compatible in density with surrounding development; maintains many of the mature trees, which retains the character of the neighborhood; reduces the grading; and retains additional open space and a buffer to the adjacent townhouse developments," she said.
After discussion within the Commission, the request was approved unanimously on a motion by Commissioner Jennings. There were no public speaker objections. A variety of citizens had expressed both support and concern for the proposed change at the earlier Commission meeting.
ONE ITEM THAT did draw comment from several commissioners was the request by JBG/Rockwood, the developers of 1700 Duke St., to increase the number of condominium units from 114 to 116. "The applicant proposes to replace two of the two-bedroom units ... with 4 one-bedroom units with no change in the building footprint, square footage, F.A.R., exterior facade, or retail use," according to the staff report.
Recently approved for a mixed use of a 43,342-square-foot grocery store and three levels of condominiums, the requested change, so soon after the initial approval, raised the ire of at least two of the commissioners.
Commissioner Donna Fossum asked, "Why are we doing this?" The answer from attorney Harry Hart, representing the applicant, was, "They (the developers) think more one-bedroom units are more marketable."
Commissioner Dunn noted, "This sets a bad precedent. After going through the entire process, we should not then be changing the density."
The staff report pointed out that the change will require two additional residential parking spaces. "These spaces will be reallocated from the excess retail parking," the report claimed.
This brought forth a suggestion from the Carlyle/Eisenhower Civic Association that the developers make an additional $40,000 donation to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Hart responded by reminding the Commission, "This was the first development to pay the increased fee to the fund when it went from 50 cents per square foot to $1."
The commission approved the request unanimously with the stipulation that the developer make an additional contribution to the fund of $10,000.