COVID-19 Impact on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals (“Court of Appeals” or “Court”) is making significant operational changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as reflected in the March 23, 2020, Order entered by Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby. The change to Court procedures follows suit with many appellate courts throughout the country. Last week, the United States Supreme Court announced it would postpone oral arguments through its session ending on April 1, 2020. The nation’s highest court has not postponed oral arguments in over 100 years – since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.

The Court of Appeals will close the Historic Courthouse Building and cancel all oral arguments scheduled through May 31, 2020.  Cancelled cases will be decided without oral argument unless the Court determines that oral argument is otherwise necessary. Parties are permitted to file a motion requesting oral argument. The Court’s Order also expressly encourages the filing of motions for summary affirmance for parties seeking a decision prior to briefing or oral argument. By instituting and encouraging these policies, it appears the Court is attempting to avoid further delay by allowing judges greater latitude to decide cases without briefing or oral argument. We may see a departure from the Court’s existing procedure where many cases are argued prior to the Court’s decision. 

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D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) Closes In-Person Permit and Licenses in response to COVID-19

Today, the District of Columbia announced that DCRA will close all of its in-person permit, license and other centers until at least April 27, 2020. Permits remain available online, and DCRA is offering “video consultations” for construction projects greater than 1,000 sq. ft.

Importantly, construction can start or continue pursuant to a valid permit. DCRA inspectors are continuing to conduct on-site inspections for illegal construction.

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Status of D.C. Agencies Handling Commercial Real Estate Development Issues as of March 23

This post is part one in a series that will examine the effect of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on the Washington, D.C. commercial real estate development community. 

Whether you are in the middle of construction or at the beginning of project due diligence, COVID-19 will impact all agencies in the District. Indeed, with many District of Columbia agencies teleworking, covered by limited staff, or closed altogether, owners, landlords, and developers may feel that they are in unchartered waters as they work to navigate the regulatory, entitlement, and permitting process.  

To help alleviate confusion and to identify which agencies are plugging along, and where backlogs may be created, below is a summary status of critical agencies in the District as of March 23.

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DC Office of Zoning Announces Six COVID-19 Changes to Business-As-Usual

The District of Columbia’s Office of Zoning (“OZ”)  – the independent agency that, among other tasks, accepts development applications to the District’s Zoning Commission (the “Commission”) and Board of Zoning Adjustment (the “BZA”) – remains open for business in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, though all staff members are teleworking until at least April 27.

The move to a remote work environment has resulted in the following important changes:

  1. All pending Commission and BZA hearings and decision dates have been suspended until at least April 27. Cases are being postponed in the order in which they were scheduled; e.g.,  a hearing scheduled for March 18 (the first hearing date after the suspension) will be heard on the first hearing date after the suspension is lifted.  
  2. Although the hearings are suspended, other filing dates and requirements continue to apply. This mean, for example, that pre-hearing statements must still be filed 21 days before the scheduled hearing date. Local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (“ANC”)  will still need to be served on all filings (regardless of whether ANC is meeting).
  3. OZ is continuing to accept electronic case filings through its Interactive Zoning Information System (“IZIS”) and by filing, as well as through for cases before the BZA and for cases before the Commission.
  4. OZ is also accepting new BZA and Commission applications filed through IZIS. All application fees can be paid online, and hard copies can be submitted after OZ reopens.
  5. Hearing dates for newly filed applications will be assigned when OZ reopens.
  6. Public signs which typically are picked up at the office will not be issued until the office re-opens. If you have not already obtained your sign and posted it 14 days before the scheduled hearing date, the sign will be available after OZ reopens and the rescheduled hearing dates are determined.
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The District’s Alley Lot Development Frontier May Be Expanding

There are big changes afoot for alley lot development in the District of Columbia.  Over the past year, several clients approached Cozen O’Connor with challenges in developing alley lots.  This was a peculiar juxtaposition given that the District’s Zoning Regulation rewrite in 2016 was seen as a boon for alley lot development.  It became clear the new regulations did not go far enough to ease restrictions on alley lot development.  Too many hurdles remained to make a dent in the District’s many vacant and underdeveloped alleys.

On behalf of its clients, Cozen O’Connor worked directly with the District’s Office of Planning to address these regulatory hurdles and draft revisions to the alley lot regulations.  On July 8th, the District’s Zoning Commission voted to hold a formal public hearing (a.k.a. “set down”) on a text amendment proposed by the Office of Planning that would simplify the zoning and permitting process for many of the District’s alley lots.  The text amendment is being processed under Zoning Commission case number 19-13.

The amendment would allow for an alley “tax lot” existing on or before May 18, 1958 to be converted to a “record lot” as a matter-of-right, provided the lot is at least 450 square feet in area.  For alley tax lots created after May 18, 1958 but before September 6, 2016, the applicable alley lot can be converted to a record lot by special exception.  For reference, tax lots are lots with numbers ranging from 800 to 1999, while record lots are commonly numbered 1 to 799. Read more ›

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Edits to the Comprehensive Plan Framework Element Released

Today (July 2nd), Chairman Mendelson released his proposed revisions to the Comprehensive Plan’s Framework Element, as we predicted last week.  A copy of the Chairman’s edits is located on his site HERE. The First Vote is scheduled for next Tuesday (July 9).

We have not had much time to digest the substance, but our initial reactions are:

  • The Chairman’s edits were made to the existing Framework element language.  These edits do not automatically incorporate the language the Office of Planning recommended in 2017-2018.  
  • The Chairman’s edits include a new section on “PUDs”, but it is not certain whether this language will be sufficient break the log jam in the courts.
  • The Chairman’s edits do appear to emphasize the provision of affordable housing, but they do not appear to make much progress on clarifying the definitions of the “land use” categories in the all-important Future Land Use Map.  Rather, most of those definitions appear to keep the “status quo.”

The first vote on these amendments is still scheduled for July 9th.  It is anticipated that numerous councilmembers will introduce amendments next week.  One such amendment could be to eliminate single family zoning as has been adopted in Minneapolis.

We will continue to monitor and update this Blog.

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The District’s Comprehensive Plan Amendment Process Is Starting Up Again: First Vote on July 9, 2019

The Comprehensive Plan amendment process is lurching back to life and the DC Council’s first vote is scheduled for July 9, 2019.  As we noted last month, the District of Columbia’s Office of Planning (“OP”) launched its DC2ME survey to solicit input on the ‘values’ that District residents want to be reflected in the amendment process. Also, OP had a presence at the recent Capital Pride parade and 11th Annual DC Housing Expo and Home Show to obtain additional feedback on the ‘values’. According to agency staff, further outreach is scheduled for this summer but specific times and locations have yet to be made public.

This outreach broke a long period of dormancy since the 12+-hour District Council hearing in March 2018 by discussing proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan’s Framework Element, which is just one of the Comprehensive Plan’s 24 elements. Read more ›

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Council of the District of Columbia Approves Significant Increase in Transfer and Recordation Taxes

Effective October 1, 2019, the transfer tax and recordation tax for real estate sales of commercial and mixed-used property on transactions of $2,000,000.00 or above will be significantly increased.

On May 28, 2019, the Council of the District of Columbia unanimously voted to approve Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget.  This budget includes an increase of the current 2.9% transfer and recordation taxes to 5% on sales of commercial and mixed-use property valued at $2,000,000.00 or more.  The increase will also apply to transfers of a controlling economic interest in entities that own commercial real property. Read more ›

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Comprehensive Plan Amendment Process Now Seeks to Evaluate the “Values” of DC Residents

It’s ALIVE!  The Comprehensive Plan amendment process comes back: Almost three years on, the District of Columbia’s Office of Planning (“OP”) wants District residents to identify key values to direct the Comprehensive Plan amendment process.

As many of our readers know, the Comprehensive Plan is a 20-year framework that guides future growth and development.  As part of the ongoing amendment process, OP wants to know: “What are the ‘values’ of District residents?”  “How should those ‘values’ direct the District’s long-term planning?”

Spearheaded by its new director, Andrew Trueblood, OP launched an online survey called “DC2ME” to find out.  The survey will be “live” only until June 30, 2019, so now is the time to act.

The online survey asks participants to rank a list of “values”, which includes: “accessibility”; “diversity”; “equity”; “livability”; “opportunity”; “prosperity”; “resilience”; and “safety”.  OP will use the feedback from the survey to “guide decision making” for the Comprehensive Plan amendment process.

The survey is meant to jump start the process to update the Comprehensive Plan, which stalled after the big District Council hearing in March 2018.  Next, OP plans to conduct multiple “outreach activities” this summer to “share” the feedback from the DC2ME survey.  We will keep an eye on the schedule for those meetings.

Unfortunately, it appears that this survey and the new round of meetings will only extend – not end – the Comprehensive Plan amendment process.  Do people remember the 2017 “Open Call” to solicit amendments to the Comprehensive Plan’s map and text? Read more ›

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Successfully Integrating Tree Protection with Development in the “City of Trees”

person measuring tree circumferenceThe District of Columbia (“D.C.”) has a relatively long history of being known for its trees, stemming back to the planting of 60,000 trees initiated by the last Governor of D.C., Alexander “Boss” Shepard in the 1870s.  While his tenure was brief, his vision of D.C. being the “City of Trees” endured as tree planting efforts were continued by the Federal Government, National Park agencies, citizens, and leaders such as Lady Bird Johnson.  (See City of Trees by Melanie Choukas-Bradley 3rd Edition.)

Today, the goal of preserving and increasing D.C.’s tree population continues.  One of D.C.’s top sustainability goals is to increase the tree canopy of the city from 35% to 40% by 2032.  (  In furtherance of this goal, updates to the Urban Forest Preservation Act, as set forth in the Sustainable D.C. Act of 2014, were enacted formally into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser in in 2016.  (D.C. Code § 8-651 et seq.)  “Sustainable D.C. 2.0” ( continues to prioritize green space and trees and incorporates both into its climate mitigation strategies, along with strategies related to energy efficiency, healthy communities, and increased access to nature.

The D.C. Code now sets forth specific laws to protect “Heritage” and “Special Trees” that are governed by District Department of Transportation (“DDOT”), as will be explained below.  (

However, these are not the only tree protection laws that developers must be aware of – the 2016 Zoning Regulations set forth even stricter tree protection standards for certain residential neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods are those that the D.C. Government considers important for tree canopy, air quality, soil protection and erosion, storm water management, and cultural significance.

Below are four types of tree-related issues to be aware of when planning a development project in D.C.  Knowing how these four issues apply to a specific project will save both time and money and will help ensure the overall viability of a proposed project, as just one relatively large tree in an inopportune place can have an immense and costly impact on a project. Read more ›

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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