Office of Zoning, Office of Planning on the Hot Seat

On February 28th, 2018, the DC Council conducted oversight hearings for the DC Office of Zoning (“OZ”) and the DC Office of Planning (“OP”).  Oversight hearings provide the DC Council and members of the public an opportunity to ask OZ and OP officials questions about their performance over the past year.

Sara Bardin, Director of OZ, presented that there was an 8% increase in Board of Zoning Adjustment (“BZA”) and Zoning Commission (“ZC”) cases over the last year and discussed upcoming updates that will allow automatic “sun/shade studies” to be conducted on the OZ website (which is still in its testing phase).  DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson engaged Director Bardin, as well as ZC Chair Anthony Hood and BZA Chair Fred Hill in a question-and-answer session.

Chairman Mendelson expressed concern regarding a recent increase in the number of appeals of BZA and ZC cases that were filed with the DC Court of Appeals, to which he called for the quality of the orders to be improved. Further, he expressed dissatisfaction as to the number of variance requests that are approved by the BZA:

He also criticized the recommendation of OP and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (“ANC”) of denial rate for variances as being too low:

Director Bardin was quick to remind Chairman Mendelson that most cases that would otherwise be denied are withdrawn prior to a decision being rendered, thereby skewing the figures.

Chairman Hill provided a strong response to Chairman Mendelson’s attack on the BZA by saying, “We don’t have any rubber stamps. It goes as long as it takes to get through the testimony from everybody and using that information to weight it against the standards.”  Chairman Mendelson challenged the facts of some specific cases, questioning how “uniqueness” was determined.

Chairman Hill confidently defended the Board’s decisions, “I can explain all of our decisions after reviewing the record. We don’t take anything lightly.  Also, when the Board rules against the recommendation of OP, there have been concrete examples from the community and testimony that the standards have been met.  The Board is there for the ‘gray area.’”

In closing, Chairman Mendelson pushed for more training for BZA and ZC members, and Director Bardin agreed that could be provided.

A handful of community members took the opportunity to chastise the ZC process and called for more transparency.  Other witnesses testified to concerns regarding “pop-ups” and “pop-backs” – those are, expansions in height and lot coverage of existing dwellings.  This is despite the fact that recent regulations went into effect protecting architectural elements of expanded dwellings and limiting rear extensions to 10 feet past an adjacent dwelling.

Next, OP was criticized by Chairman Mendelson and community members for introducing to Council amendments to the DC Comprehensive Plan’s Framework Element without satisfying a 60-day public review period. Councilmember Robert White asked OP, “Who is steering this ship? Our growth has to be deliberate.”  Councilmember Elissa Silverman criticized OP for not focusing on displacement issues: “We’ve made great strides in affordable housing…but we haven’t met these goals in reality.”

The oversight hearings offered a glimpse into the Council’s perceptions of OZ and OP.  We will continue to monitor these issues.

Stephen is the Planning Services Director with the firm and is not an attorney.

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Real Estate, Zoning & Land Use

Cozen O’Connor has represented residential, commercial, retail, and industrial builders in the development and redevelopment of building lots and millions of square feet of real estate. Our team handles every aspect of the zoning, land use, and development approvals process, from obtaining building permits and variances to negotiating stormwater management and traffic plans.

Head of the DC Zoning Group & Blog Editor