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Alexandria karate studio battles Fairfax zoning to open dojo near Springfield

Richard Romero, founder of Seichou Karate (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Things were looking up for Richard Romero, founder of Seichou Karate in Alexandria. The Old Town dojo is facing imminent closure thanks to redevelopment, but Romero finally found a new home just northeast of Springfield.

But, like a crane kick at the end of a karate championship, Romero said some surprising zoning issues have cropped up that could spell trouble for plans to open Seichou Karate at 5710 General Washington Drive.

“We found a place on General Washington Drive in Fairfax,” Romero said. “It’s in a warehouse-type structure. The space is just off I-395. It’ll be a good new home for us but we’ve encountered some difficulties.”

After 18 years in Old Town, Romero struggled to find a new space to fit the needs of the dojo. Romero said larger businesses like Amazon have been buying up warehouses and flex space in the area and, after 18 months of searching, he found a suitable location in Springfield.

Romero admitted he was so excited by the new location and worried he’d lose it that he didn’t do a feasibility study.

“I didn’t do a feasibility study and that was a mistake,” Romero said. “I had no idea we would run into so many bureaucratic complications.”

The main issue, Romero said, has been parking. Romero said the school will have 20 students and two staff and Fairfax County has told him that it means he needs 22 parking spaces, which is unlikely for the shopping center-like space.

“That’s where we’re really hung up right now,” Romero said. “They say I need 22 parking spaces, 24/7. But that doesn’t reflect how our business works.”

Romero said his classes get started around 4:30/5 p.m., which is when many of the nearby light industrial and supply businesses close.

“There’s plenty of parking if you go there any time of the day,” Romero said, “but the county says this space — with maybe 20 tenants in the whole building –simply doesn’t have enough parking spaces to include all the tenants.”

A Fairfax County spokesperson said because Seichou Karate is a new use for the site, it has different parking requirements than the previous tenant.

“When a new tenant has different parking requirements than the previous tenant, it requires a more in-depth review of the application by the county,” the spokesperson said. “The previous use was an establishment for production that only required four spaces. Seichou Karate is a school of specialized instruction that requires several more parking spaces to accommodate staff and students.”

The spokesperson said in these cases, the applicant must submit a parking tabulation to demonstrate the site can accommodate the parking required for this use, which the spokesperson said Seichou Karate has not.

“I’ve tried to reason with them,” Romero said. “I’ve said ‘please, look at the parking lot during the daytime’ but they say no, the rules are the rules.”

Romero said that parking tabulation required by the County is costly, around $5,500, with a $1,000 filing fee.

“To boot, since July, I’ve been paying two landlords,” Romero said. “We’re not causing congestion and there’s plenty of space… They’re not willing to apply those rules in a way that makes sense.”

Romero said he has to be out of his current space in Alexandria by Dec. 31 and it’s looking unlikely that Seichou Karate will be open in Fairfax by that time.

“Getting that ready by December, even if it were approved now, is fanciful at best,” Romero said. “It’s really a kafkaesque nightmare.”