Board of Zoning Adjustment Reverses Zoning Administrator’s Interpretation on Multiple Dwelling Conversions in the RA-1 and RA-6 Zones

On July 1, 2020, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (Board) reversed a decision by the Zoning Administrator (ZA) allowing the by-right conversion of an existing dwelling unit into an eight-unit apartment house in the RA-1 zone.  

The crux of the appeal in BZA Case 20226 concerns the ZA’s interpretation of Subtitle U §§ 401.1 and 421.1 in the Zoning Regulations, which govern multiple dwelling uses in the RA zones. Under Subtitle U § 401.1, multiple dwelling uses are permitted as a matter-of-right in all RA zones except for the RA-1 and RA-6 zones. Whereas, in the RA-1 and RA-6 zones, Subtitle U § 421.1 dictates that special exception relief is required for “all new residential developments, except those comprising all one-family detached and semi-detached dwellings.” 

The ZA previously distinguished between the conversion or expansion of an existing building and new construction of an apartment building. In doing so, the ZA interpreted Subtitle U §§ 401.1 and 421.1 to allow for the by-right conversion of an existing dwelling into a multiple dwelling use in the RA-1 and RA-6 zones. Under this interpretation, a conversion would require special exception relief only where the proposed construction results in a 100% or greater increase in the number of dwelling units and the new gross floor area compared to the existing building, or increases the number of dwelling units by 10 or more.

The Board disagreed with the ZA’s interpretation, finding no distinction between conversions of existing buildings and new construction in the RA-1 and RA-6 zones. In reversing the interpretation, the Board noted “‘All new residential developments’ must encompass a new apartment house use created through the conversion of an existing building, because the Zoning Commission did not specifically exclude that type of development from the requirement for special exception review under Subtitle U § 421 or its predecessors.” The Board consequently found the building permit was issued in error and the conversion to a multiple dwelling use required special exception relief. 

The broad language of the Board’s decision will permanently change the nature of multiple dwelling uses in the RA-1 and RA-6 zones. In striking down the ZA’s interpretation of Subtitle U §§ 401.1 and 421.1, the Board is clear that all new multiple dwelling uses in the RA-1 and RA-6 zones, whether by conversion or new construction, must obtain special exception approval from the Board. 

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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