Open Space Work Session Gets Testy

Open Space Work Session Gets Testy

Second Presbyterian church site focus of concerns.

One of the most divisive land use issues to be debated in Alexandria in recent years was the subject of a joint City Council/Planning Commission work session April 20.

Causing the polarization is the 6.07 acre property at the intersection of Janneys and Quaker lanes known as the Second Presbyterian Church site. The debate centers on whether to approve it for development of single family homes or acquire it as part of Alexandria's permanent open space inventory.

The pros and cons were aired during a public meeting at Bishop Ireton High School last winter. Supporters held a rally at the site March 20, where Council members Andrew Macdonald and Ludwig Gaines voiced their support for acquisition. And finally, the issue triggered comments between various Council and Commission members at the recent work session.

Underlying the debate that night were three concerns: Should this site be high on the acquisition priority list of the city as evaluated by the Open Space Steering Committee; should acquisition criteria take into consideration the cost of a site in relationship to other potential sites, available now or in the future; and what would be the estimated cost of acquiring the total site as compared to an additional lot on the site and how would the former impact the city's income stream for future open space acquisition and overall debt ratio?

Elm Street Development, present owners of the site, propose to build eight large single family homes and set aside two lots to be donated to the city for open space. The developer will also be eligible to apply for a Virginia Tax Credit for that donation based on state tax credit guidelines.

It was the priority rating given by the Open Space Steering Committee [OSSC] and the question of whether or not they had considered price in their evaluation process that brought forth comments between several Council members and with Judy Guse- Noritake, co-chair of the committee, along with Eric R. Wagner, chairman, Alexandria Planning Commission.

A memorandum prepared by City Manager Philip Sunderland stated, "The city has obtained a professionally appraised value for the Second Presbyterian property... the fee simple market value of the site "as is" is $6,350,000. If the city were to purchase a single lot, the market value ... would be $635,000."

Sunderland also pointed out, "based upon statements by the developer about expecting to recoup foregone developments in a sale, it is likely that the developer's expected price in any voluntary sale to the city would be higher..." Sunderland estimated, "the developer may seek up to as much as 20 percent over the lot's appraised value."

Gaines asked several times if money was a consideration when OSSC was ranking the property. "Money is a consideration and that did influence the Open Space Committee," Wagner said. He also indicated the committee will present a list of prioritized sites at a work session on May 12, dealing with the Open Space Plan.

Wagner further noted, "If money was not a consideration we could just go out and buy whatever we wanted. That would be the end of it."

THERE WERE ALSO questions about tax credits accruing to the developer pertaining to lots donated to the city for open space. When Gaines inquired as to the limit on such credits, Jonathan Rak, attorney for Elm Street Development, explained, "The limit is approximately $500,000 depending on a donors tax bracket and other factors."

Since the proposed donated lots are carved from the site along Quaker Lane, Gaines asked if ingress and egress to the lots impacted the value of tax credits. The answer was 'no.'

Noritake explained, "The committee decided to score the property using 11 criteria outlined ... in the Open Space Master Plan. The maximum potential score for the property was 33... the minimum ... was 11." It received a "composite score of 16.5 points with an average score of 1.5 points."

According to her report, "This score resulted in a low to medium priority for acquisition... in the view of the committee. In summary, a clear majority of the Committee did not believe that the ... property merited ... consideration for expenditure of limited funding resources over other sites ... The Committee does not recommend" acquisition of the site by the city.

On the question of whether the city should pursue the acquisition of an additional lot at the site, to add to the two being offered by the developer, "the Committee was divided and neither recommends nor opposes the proposal...," the report stated.

The Committee's lack of support for acquiring the total site was strongly criticized by both Judy C. Durand, a leader of the March 20 rally and Seminary Hills resident, as well as Alexandrian's For Sensible Growth, Inc.,(ASG). Both registered their disagreement in correspondence to the mayor, Council and Planning Commission.

Durand questioned, among other things, a possible linkage between the city and developers to raise money for affordable housing through the $1 per square foot proffer calling it "an unholy alliance." ASG lead off its criticism by noting, "The Open Space Steering Committee solicited no public input prior to rewriting the Open Space Plan."

Noritake had justified the Committee's early morning meeting times, starting at 7 a.m., based on the rationale, "I cannot devote one more evening" to volunteer community service. Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper noted that this scheduling worked to preclude citizen input.

Councilwoman Joyce Woodson, congratulated Noritake for establishing the morning timeframe. She said, "That hour also guarantees the meeting will not drag out because people realize they have to be somewhere by 9 a.m."

A PRIME ARGUMENT in favor of buying the site, as put forth by Gaines and Macdonald, has been utilization of the Open Space Fund, which now totals approximately $2 million, to leverage approximately $35 million. This is based on the estimated revenue stream from a one cent set aside from property taxes over the next 20 years, according to Mark Jinks, assistant City Manager, Fiscal and Financial Affairs.

In explaining the concept during the work session, Jinks said, "The city debt now stands at $230 million. It has increased five fold in the last decade." When Macdonald asked how much could "safely" be raised in such a leverage procedure, Jinks explained, "That can't be answered. Bond agencies will not give specific figures."

He further explained the critical financial mass is based on debt to assessed value and debt to tax base. "Although open space does impact quality of life. Open space is not a primary element to bond agencies," he explained. They are more concerned with such things as water and sewer, highways, and other infrastructure elements, according to Jinks.

Following the session, Jinks said, "Capitalizing the one cent real estate tax set aside for open space does produce $35 million over the next 20 years." However, the estimated $7 million price for this site would consumer 20 percent of that projected revenue, according to Jinks.

As Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning, stated at the start of the work session, "The purpose of this work session was to lay out all the information on the site we have." But, as she also warned at the Bishop Ireton public session on the site, "The only way to deny a legitimate site plan is to have it stand up in court."