alexandrianews.org Editorial

The owners of the very well-known restaurant, La Bergerie, announced last week that they would not be re-opening their establishment in the building located at 329 N. Washington Street. Their quest for their space began with unanimous approvals from the City Planning Commission and City Council in October 2014. A lawsuit by 24 neighbors spearheaded by a senior member of the law firm of Williams and Connolly (who handled the litigation for the plaintiffs pro bono) derailed their efforts for nearly four years. In the end the costs were too high, and the investors had moved on.

This is certainly not the first time nor will it be the last that a very small group of mostly wealthy individuals turned to the law to unreasonably attempt to destroy something they did not want. It is a fact of life in modern America with its growing disparity of economic power. Despite how one feels about the outcome, however, it behooves us to examine the situation for lessons learned.

The first is that the City spent a great deal of money (around $1.1 million) on this project, achieved the legal outcome it desired, and still lost the war. The major issue was the failure of the City’s legal team to get the lawsuit dismissed. The plaintiff’s assertion came down to the relationship of the owners of La Bergerie to former Mayor Patsy Ticer put the City Council in a conflict of interest situation.

This kind of assertion has a long- standing history in Virginia case law and the courts including the Supreme Court have always said that it is a political not a legal matter and it should be solved at the ballot box. Looking at the decisions from the lower court to the refusal of the State Supreme Court to hear an appeal twice confirmed this. It should have never taken four years to resolve the matter.

It was not clear at the beginning of the case that the City had the kind of representation it should have had and the results bore out this feeling. In the future, if the City is going to spend $1.1 million on legal representation it needs to have representation that understands precedent and can bring that to bear at the very beginning. Otherwise it appears that the lack of competence was rewarded with a huge fee.

The second is that the City failure has further tarnished its image as a place friendly to business. If a well known local business can be destroyed by these kind of delaying tactics, and the City is powerless to help, then who will want to do business here? The City must have an effective response and the four- year delay in resolution tells everyone that they did not.

The third is that a small business took a mighty hit. If the residents had taken on a big business it would have responded in kind with big lawyers and very deep pockets. The business would have brushed this nuisance suit aside. Small businesses can simply not afford to do that.

Alexandria has always prided itself on its small business model. People don’t come here for Walmart. The hundreds of distinctive shops and restaurants define the City. These small businesses are the real power behind our local economy.

These small business owners will think twice before offering grand plans for expansion now. The City will risk being overtaken by “bigness” which is an outcome that residents certainly should not want.

In many respects the loss of La Bergerie will have a more profound impact than that of the end of a single business. It is up to the City’s leadership, new and old, to learn from this experience and to make sure that it is never repeated.