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Federal court issues blow to Alexandria waterfront plan

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Local,Virginia,Real Estate,Liz Farmer
Alexandria's vision of opening up King Street to sweeping views of the Potomac River just got a little blurrier after a federal court ruling gave a boat club rights to the property at the base of Old Town's main retail corridor.

Old Dominion Boat Club's victory in a decades-long lawsuit throws a wrench into the city's plans to create an entirely open waterfront by awarding private ownership to a property the city hoped would be a key entry point for visitors.

Waterfront controversy timeline

1623: King Charles I grants a charter for Maryland to Lord Baltimore, establishing the boundary between Virginia and Maryland.

1791: A survey identifies the high-water mark as the Maryland/Virginia boundary, which was then incorporated into the new District of Columbia.

1846: Alexandria is retroceded back to Virginia, making the high-water mark its boundary with D.C.

1880: Old Dominion Boat Club is established in Alexandria, occupying land filled west of the high-water mark after 1791.

1973: The Nixon administration files suit, claiming ownership of all filled and submerged lands on the D.C. side of the 1791 boundary.

2010: U.S. District Court rules in favor of the Boat Club. Justice Department appeals.

2011: U.S. Court of Appeals affirms. Justice Department has until April to appeal to Supreme Court.

But city officials say last week's ruling doesn't kill the city's goal of getting public access to all points on the waterfront -- it just might take longer. Mark Jinks, deputy city manager, said had the U.S. Justice Department won the suit and been awarded control of the boat club's land, building a park there would have been the next logical step.

"We periodically met with the feds and [we] used their input to help craft the waterfront plan. So we knew where they were," Jinks said. "Now it's not their property and we have to work with a membership, nonprofit organization to come to an agreement and that's going to be a longer process."

The city hoped to build a park at the base of King Street in place of the boat club's parking lot and build an underground parking garage nearby. It is not clear whether the club would be receptive to an alternative parking garage, and the organization's attorneys did not return requests for comment. A boat club employee said the organization does not speak to reporters.

The controversy dates back to the days of Lord Baltimore, King Charles I and the forming of Washington as the U.S. capital. Citing a 1971 survey that identified the water boundary for the District of Columbia, the government filed a lawsuit in 1973 seeking to reclaim land along the Alexandria waterfront.

Most of the 34 landowners settled with the government by 1980, opening much of the land for public use and priming it for the city's revitalization plans, but the boat club and two others fought the claim.

The ruling will likely delay the city's release of its small area draft plan for the waterfront until mid-February, officials said. Faroll Hamer, director of the city Department of Planning and Zoning, said while she was disappointed in the ruling, she was glad the issue was finally decided.

"It was not what city hoped it would be," she said. "On the other hand it was a good thing a decision was made -- it's been a long, long time."

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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