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Alexandria Sex Shop Revenge for Zoning Controls

Despite my being local and getting the Sunday Washington Post delivered to my driveway, I just encountered this story about an Alexandria shop owner’s renting his space to a sex shop to spit city planners on memeorandum.

Le Tache, at 210 King St. in Old Town Alexandria, has "caused a lot of buzz" with its racy displays and adult inventory. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

Le Tache, at 210 King St. in Old Town Alexandria, has "caused a lot of buzz" with its racy displays and adult inventory. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

To many in Old Town Alexandria, the sex shop that opened recently on King Street is nothing short of scandalous, a historical desecration just blocks from the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee.

But to Michael Zarlenga, it’s justice. Zarlenga spent $350,000 on plans to expand his hunting and fishing store, the Trophy Room. He worked with city officials for almost two years and thought he had their support — until the architectural review board told him he couldn’t alter the historic property.   Furious and out of money, Zarlenga rented the space to its newest occupant, Le Tache.

[...]

Zarlenga’s saga with the building dates to 2001, when he opened his hunting and fishing store. In 2006, he bought the building with the idea of renovating and expanding it to include more retail space, a bathroom and an elevator.  He hired a Washington architectural firm, which created eight designs for the project. The final one included plans to raise the roof on the back of the building and demolish a small section of a historic brick wall that was built about 1800. Most of the back wall would have been incorporated into the renovation.

Zarlenga said he consulted Alexandria’s historical preservation staff along the way to be sure everyone was on board with his plans. He said he relied heavily on the advice of Peter Smith, who at the time was the principal staff member of the city’s Board of Architectural Review. But when the project came before the review board in 2007, it was rejected partly on Smith’s recommendation that it would cause an “unreasonable loss of historic fabric.” Zarlenga said Smith did not explain to him why he changed his mind. Smith has since died.

Tom Hulfish, chairman of the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review, said the project was rejected because it would have altered the traditional “flounder,” or shed roof structure that preservationists are trying to protect around the city.

Like John Cole and John J. Miller, I’m both sympathetic to Zarlenga’s plight and amused by the novelty of his response.

City planners have done a good job at restoring Old Town over the years and most of the downtown area is visually appealing as a result.  But in doing so they’ve created a nightmare for local businesses and have created arcane rules that inhibit reasonable development.   Some of them are bizarre.

For example, my wife’s firm outgrew its rented office space a couple years back and purchased a building formerly occupied by the Firehook Bakery.  Getting the permits to make the rather substantial changes necessary — virtually all of them invisible to passersby — was a nightmare.  And they faced one silly obstacle after another.  For example, they were not allowed to paint over the old Firehook logo on the building, place a sign of comparable size in its place, or otherwise identify the new ownership in a way easily visible to someone driving by.  Not the end of the world, of course, but maddeningly dumb.  And they still occasionally get people stopping in for baked goods.

I’ve got no view on the matter of the “flounder” and whether Zarlenga should have been required to conform his expansion plans to maintain it.  I’m quite certain, however, that a citizen should not have to spend six years dealing with his local government in order to get permission to expand his business.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Pete Burgess says:

    Some years ago, a fraternity brother purchased a historical home adjacent to the fraternity house site in Chapel Hill. He then went to the historical commission in Chapel Hill for permission to renovate the house. His ideas were not revolutionary to anybody but the members of the commission. They found “problems” with everything my brother proposed. Fortunately for him, there was some “escape” feature available to him such that the “historical” house was razed and the home site sold. Unless one serves on such a commission, one may never understand why such logjams seem to be so prevalent in matters like this. My suspicion is that small minds congregate and develop oversized egos. Sort of like what happens in DC.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve had my own run-ins with city architects and my experience was not that they were bureaucratic but that they were arbitrary and autocratic, their judgment rarely questioned. They may have reasonable pretexts for their determinations but the actual reasons may be matters of taste or simply that they didn’t like your architect.

    My approach was an end-run around the city architect, directly to the political powers-that-be, which is how things get done in Chicago anyway.

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  3. sam says:

    On a day-to-day basis, our lives are more impacted by our state and local governments than the federal government by a couple of orders of magnitude. After all, who marries us; buries us; installs red light cameras; installs public survellience cameras; zones our living spaces; sets our building codes; etc? In terms of “government running our lives,” the feds are milquetoasts compared to your local board of selectmen. (Of course, state and local governments are near-libertarian compared to homeowners associations–but that’s for another time.) And yet, all the heat and passion seems, for folks on the right, to be directed at the feds. Here’s an interesting exercise: For one day keep a journal and record all those activies of living that the feds directly control and those that your state and local government directly control. Then come back and try and tell us that the federal government is the greatest brake on individual freedom in the known universe.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    And yet, all the heat and passion seems, for folks on the right, to be directed at the feds.

    Federalists tend not to mind local communities imposing their own values on the neighborhood. It’s a very different thing when it’s nationalized.

    Theoretically, at least, it’s a different thing. If one doesn’t like the tight strictures that Old Town puts on your business and you can’t persuade your fellow citizens to change the rules, then one can shop for a saner jurisdiction a couple miles away in Fairfax County. Contrariwise, if you don’t like what’s happening in Washington, your only recourse is to leave the country.

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  5. sam says:

    True enough, but I don’t think it gainsays my fundamental point: From the time you get up until the time you go to bed, Little Brother is calling most of the shots impact your quotidian existence.

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  6. Steve Plunk says:

    I’ve been preaching sam’s point for years. Our biggest threat to civil liberties comes from the local city council not the FBI.

    In cases of planning and control my experience has taught me the problem is staffers who weave a tangle web of regulations that ensure continued employment for themselves. That employment may be with other municipalities but it often comes in the private sector as a consultant hired to navigate those very same rules they proposed and got passed by citizen commissions and boards.

    It’s not surprising that the rules have so many unintended consequences. Everyone should expect that and be extra cautious when passing new regulations. Unfortunately we know they seldom are.

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  7. Christopher says:

    I live in Oregon and the Columbia Gorge scenic area, 20 miles east of Portland, is very protected. No one can hardly get any permission at all to change or build ANYthing. But now the indians want to build a casino, and it looks like they will be allowed. What a joke!

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  8. James Joyner says:

    No one can hardly get any permission at all to change or build ANYthing. But now the indians want to build a casino, and it looks like they will be allowed. What a joke!

    If it’s on a reservation, they don’t need permission from the state. They’re a quasi-sovereign entity under the Constitution.

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  9. Eneils Bailey says:

    Despite my being local and getting the Sunday Washington Post delivered to my driveway

    I hope you don’t have to pay a lot to have that crap removed from your driveway.

    It’s not surprising that the rules have so many unintended consequences. Everyone should expect that and be extra cautious when passing new regulations. Unfortunately we know they seldom are.

    If you doubt for one moment that you are, in this day and time doing anything more than renting land and property though property taxes, from your local government, give me a call. And then, at anytime they can invoke any law or ordinance to drive you from your residence or out of business.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    I hope you don’t have to pay a lot to have that crap removed from your driveway.

    It’s ridiculously cheap and my wife likes the Parade and the Sunday Magazine. We also tend to get enough coupons out of it to more than pay for it.

    They try to give me the other six days for free but I won’t take it.

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  11. Franklin says:

    The historical commissions have some of the most incredible power to do anything they want. We had a drive-thru beer place in our town for the longest time. There was an ugly-ass garage door where you drove in, and you exited into an alley.

    Well the city council never did like the whole concept and they spent a bunch of time and effort harassing the owner, threatening to revoke the liquor license and all sorts of stuff. Eventually the guy sells out to a new store, whose owner promptly removes the garage door and puts up a normal storefront. “No, no, no”, the historical commission says, “you gotta re-install the garage door.”

    So now there’s an ugly-ass garage door on the front of a building that sells who-knows-what, at considerable expense and still causing an eyesore for the city planners.

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  12. Joe R. says:

    And yet, all the heat and passion seems, for folks on the right, to be directed at the feds.

    You also have to consider that national issues make the national media more often than local issues do (almost by definition). This one only did because of its amusing nature. If the new store had been a coffee shop or a jewelry shop, no one would have cared and the story would have probably never hit the news. And if it did, it wouldn’t have been considered interesting enough to blog about.

    So yes, I think outrage would be directed towards the local government, if people knew about it. People are just exposed more to things like the stimulus plan than they are to the fact that John Smith didn’t get a building permit. And if there was local outrage over John Smith’s building permit, you wouldn’t hear about it unless you read local news or a local blog. The story just wouldn’t hit most papers.

    My guess is that local papers do have letters to the editor about red light cameras. I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t possibly read them all. I do remember Delaware’s smoking ban being a big story at the time. Huge hubbub.

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