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Housing Proposal on the Precipice in Alexandria
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Housing Proposal on the Precipice in Alexandria

Development weathers soil erosion concerns.

Alexandria’s slope stability map showing part of the Karig Estates site in a red zone, meaning the site is susceptible to landslides.

Alexandria’s slope stability map showing part of the Karig Estates site in a red zone, meaning the site is susceptible to landslides. Photo contributed

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Marine Clay, fractured when dry and discharging groundwater when wet.

By all accounts, the Karig Estates project should be a beautiful set of four new homes along Seminary Road, with the backs pressed up to the city’s natural wetlands … if the cliff they’re situated on doesn’t erode.

Despite approval by staff and an ongoing review process, local residents say the new homes are built too close to a cliff, building on top of unsteady ground and posing a hazard to the delicate nearby ecosystem. At a Planning Commission meeting on Nov. 9, the new development weathered criticisms from local neighbors and commission members to reach approval for an amended site plan request, subdivision approval, and street naming.

Many of the nearby neighbors came out to the meeting to speak out on the homes, a couple in support but the majority expressing concerns about the homes’ impact.

The homes are built on the edge of a swale, which itself is not an environmentally protected feature, but contains a protected wetland area which includes a 50-foot buffer around which no buildings can be built. The buildings do not fall inside the buffer, but do include a sewer pipe that exits inside the buffer. Under city code, the sewer pipe is allowed, but residents said the development should still be required to use an alternative sewage system that would carry the waste away from the site and feed into the Seminary Road sewage drain.

One of the most vocal concerns expressed was about the marine clay foundation under the site. The city’s geologic atlas notes that the site is built on top of marine clay, a type of soil that has potential to swell when wet and shrink when dry, creating an unstable building environment. Further concerns were raised that the destruction of trees on the site would add to the risk of erosion. The staff report notes that erosion and sediment related issues are included in a geotechnical report used in final site plan review and building permit review.

Residents were also frustrated that Resource Manager Rod Simmons, a city employee who had expressed concerns about the project’s environmental impact, had not been called to testify before the Planning Commission. Planning Commission chair Mary Lyman said Simmons was allowed to testify but that the commission would not compel him to.

While the majority on the Planning Commission expressed support for the project, others said they still had deep concerns about the site. Melissa McMahon said the community’s concerns about the project were valid and bore greater consideration as the project moved forward.

Commissioner David Brown said the project met the legal and technical considerations under review by the commission, but like McMahon, said he had concerns about the environmental impact.

“The real problem is the increased run off and slippage of the soil,” said Brown. “The citizens here are not ‘sky is falling’ types or NIMBYs. They are addressing things that were not fully or adequately addressed in the site plan.”

Ultimately, Brown and McMahon abstained from the vote on the development site plan, which was still approved four to two.

“It’s a difficult case,” said Lyman. “None of us are wild about this project. However, the owner has a right to build on the property and the legal requirements have been met. I believe the city staff know what they are doing. This isn’t the end of this discussion; a lot of hard work has to be done with regard to the soil.”