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T.C. Williams Lights
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T.C. Williams Lights

Permanent contract or changeable legislation?

A Circuit Court judge is currently considering four lawsuits against the city government and School Board regarding their recent approval of lights at the T.C. Williams High School stadium.

The first case asks whether an alleged promise to residents in the 1960s never to install lights is binding and enforceable today. The residents who are suing think it is and want a jury to consider their case. The city and schools don’t and want the case dismissed.

In their formal complaint to the court, the residents’ attorneys recount how the T.C. Williams campus came to be in 1965 on land that had historically belonged to African-American families. They say the residents and government at the time negotiated a deal: the school division got part of the land for the high school; displaced residents got first right to purchase homes in a carved-out new subdivision adjacent to the school; and, “because the school would be built on a lot size significantly smaller than that required by state law, and because of the school’s close proximity to the new homes, Alexandria agreed that it would not install any permanent lighting on athletic fields, including the stadium.”

In the plaintiffs’ view, this agreement constitutes a binding contract, which the city and schools breached last fall in approving a stadium upgrade, including light poles as tall as 80 feet.

Over the years, “two Alexandria mayors, two Alexandria Superintendents, the Alexandria City Manager, the Department of Planning and Zoning, and the Alexandria Director of Parks and Recreation have affirmed in writing and at public hearings that this agreement exists,” according to their complaint.

For example, they cite a 2004 city staff recommendation to City Council about a related Development Special Use Permit: “The schools have agreed that there will be no permanent lighting installed at the stadium behind the schools, or on any of the athletic fields on the site, and a condition is included in the staff’s recommendation reflecting that agreement.”

The city and schools see things differently. First, the residents’ complaint “fails to allege facts from which the court could conclude that any contract was made” in the first place, according to an objection filed by City Attorney Joanna Anderson in January. “No facts are alleged supporting the necessary elements of a contract, such as an offer, acceptance, consideration, definiteness of terms, and a mutual intent to be bound.” Echoing this, the School Board’s attorneys say there’s “no writing serving as the basis of any covenant encumbering the land upon which T.C. High School, including the Stadium.”

Second, “neither the [present] School Board, nor these Plaintiffs, would be party to any contract alleged to have been created,” according to an objection filed by the School Board’s attorneys. Of the six plaintiffs, only one is an original homeowner. Three are descendants of original property owners, having purchased or inherited their homes in the 1990s or early 2000s. The remaining two bought their homes in 1986 and 1996.

Third, “land use approvals by the City Council, including the approvals of Development Special Use Permits (DSUPs), do not create contracts; they are legislative acts under the City governmental police power,” according to the city attorney’s objection. A legislative decision isn’t binding forever, but rather is subject to change by new legislation duly passed by a future elected government.

The other three cases, brought by other neighborhood residents, allege violation or improper application of the city’s zoning laws.

One complaint calls council’s approval of stadium lights and nighttime sporting events and practices “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.” It cites zoning provisions saying “the proposed use or structure will be designed and operated so as to avoid, minimize or mitigate any potentially adverse effects on the neighborhood as a whole or other properties in the vicinity;” and that a permit’s approval “will not be … injurious to the property or improvements in the neighborhood.” It also cites an Oct. 13, 2018 question from then Mayor Allison Silberberg about whether city staff had investigated potential “impact to property value,” to which staff responded: “we didn’t do a real estate analysis, we focused on the land use impacts.”

Plaintiffs in the other two cases allege that current and proposed stadium uses constitute a “nuisance” that deprive them “of the reasonable use and enjoyment of their property.” For example, their complaint alleges use of the adjacent neighborhood by sporting event attendees for parking; trespassing on residents’ property; climbing of neighbors’ fences; and noise from sporting events and band practice.

The City Attorney objected that the residents fail “to claim, or allege facts in support of, how the Council’s action caused them particularized ‘harm’ different from that of the general public.”