Into the Belly of the Beast

land use attorney at DC council hearing

On the night of March 20th, 2018, I unwittingly walked into hostile territory – the DC Council chamber during the epic 13-hour public hearing on the proposed amendments to the Framework Element of the District’s Comprehensive Plan.

Perhaps the Washington Post headline said it best: “Dry DC Planning Document Fuels Hot Debate”.

While I was joined by many leaders of the development community, as highlighted in the Bisnow article dated March 20th, I think that all of us were surprised at the angry tenor of the opposition to the amendments.  Guy Durant, of the Durant case fame, went so far as to call us “devil-opers” with the emphasis on the “devil”.  And there were no punches pulled on the members of the land use bar who were called all sorts of names, none of which were nice.

The opposition used the hearing as an opportunity to air their dirty laundry on any and all issues relating (even tangentially) to land use and development.  Their concerns ranged from displacement of residents to DC Water fees.  They clearly wanted a soap box and found it.

Even in this atmosphere, however, the development community held its own.  Led in large part by the excellent and concerted efforts of Greater Greater Washington – which held a “watch party” and sent out frequent emails throughout the night – the supporters of the amendments highlighted the positive impacts of PUDs and the negative effects that the current slew of DC Court of Appeals cases has on the District’s current and future residents.

For me, personally, as someone who both works and lives in the District, I told the Council that the proposed amendments will help provide certainty to everyone: residents; the public; and developers.  The current ambiguity in the Comprehensive Plan language has created the unfortunate appeal situation that has left almost 3,500 homes and nearly 500 affordable units un-built.  These appeals have also greatly increased the cost of construction and have created a “chilling effect” on some developers who are unwilling to face an appeal by proposing a PUD that would provide more units and, importantly, more affordable units.

It will be interesting to see what the Council decides to do and when the Council decides to do it.  With an election around the corner, I am concerned that headwinds might be strong and that these necessary changes may be delayed.  Only time will tell, but I anticipate that the March 20th hearing was only the beginning.  There will be more conversations in the future and I will know next time to bring a pillow and, maybe, a flak jacket.

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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