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Council Weighs Eminent Domain for Alley

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

A bill to seize a Georgetown alley using eminent domain received a favorable response from D.C. Council members at a committee hearing last Thursday.

Residents and city agencies have always treated the paved open space behind homes on N and O streets NW between Potomac and 33rd streets NW as public property, a way to access garages and backyards. But several years ago, the city sold off the area as five lots in a tax auction — evidently in error — and their new owner says he’d like to construct a home there.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans supported the bill during Thursday’s hearing at the council’s Committee of the Whole. Evans also expressed frustration that this matter continues to take up his and the council’s time.

“I’m very annoyed that we’re here at all today,” Evans said. “This is a ridiculous issue.”

Evans said that he wishes eminent domain weren’t necessary but that the property owner wasn’t negotiating in good faith with neighbors or the city. If the bill passes and the city seizes the lot, a judge will determine an amount of money proportional to property owner Kebreab Zere’s loss, according to Evans.

At the hearing, Zere argued that he should be allowed to let the market determine the value of the property, which city records say he purchased for $25,204.67.

“If the neighbors want to buy the lots, they need to pay the fair market value, which I deserve as an investor,” he said. “They shouldn’t try to take advantage of me or waste D.C. taxpayers’ money through unnecessary, time-consuming and expensive eminent domain legislation. I am an honest investor, and I want my rights as a property owner to be respected.”

Zere has at times tried to fence off the alley site — an application was rejected by the Old Georgetown Board design review panel — and to construct a home there. The Historic Preservation Review Board will consider this month whether the properties constitute buildable space. A staff report by city architectural historian Tim Dennée said the land area would allow a row house to be constructed facing Potomac Street NW, but he nonetheless recommended that the board deny the application, calling the scheme “incompatible with the character of the historic district.”

Several community members also spoke at the hearing. Paul Frazer, whose garage opens onto the alley, testified that neighbors weren’t even aware that the alley was threatened until long after Zere had finalized the purchase. Frazer said he has used the alley the entire time he has lived in his home, and the previous property owners used the alley to access their garage for the entirety of their four decades there.

“These tax auction sales have struck at the heart of basic rights enjoyed without question by generations of property owners using this public alley, and threaten the equity that these families have built up over the years,” Frazer said. “The news that key portions have been purchased came as a complete shock to all affected homeowners.”

In addition to daily use by nearby residents — and regular trash collections that take place there — security officers occasionally conduct business in the alley related to Secretary of State John Kerry, who lives nearby, Frazer said.

Zere said none of the nearby residents had made him an offer to buy back the lots, contradicting a claim from Frazer just minutes earlier. Frazer said he and his neighbors offered to pay Zere slightly more than what he paid in order to regain control of the lots, but according to Frazer, Zere denied that request over a year ago. Zere said such an exchange never happened.

Mendelson balked at the idea that Zere thought he could attract anyone to pay more than he did, given that several of the lots appear to have little to no value at all. “I think that the lots are worthless, even the one that still has frontage,” Mendelson said.

The residents’ attorney, Chip Glasgow, testified that the process for converting the tax lots into usable space would require numerous bureaucratic processes, including getting approval to subdivide the lots.

The record will be open for public comment on the issue until 5 p.m. today. Evans said he hopes to resolve the matter swiftly at that point. “I think it is very unreasonable to ask individuals who have been using this alley for years, decades, parking their cars in these garages, to now have to pay money to do that, even if it’s in settlement in a case,” Evans said.

As of yesterday, no further action has been scheduled for the bill, though it will be on the table for markup at a future committee meeting, according to Committee of the Whole director Evan Cash.

This article appears in the Oct. 14 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.