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City on a Hill: Meet the Zoning Commission!

January 27, 2011


After 18 months of debate over the 2010 Campus Plan, shit’s about to get real.

Come Apr. 14, the University will have a chance to discuss the plan with a group other than perpetually pissed-off neighbors: the District of Columbia Zoning Commission, a group that actually has the power to approve or deny the plan. So if there’s one D.C. government board that students should take some time to learn about, it’s the Zoning Commission.

Part of D.C.’s Office of Zoning, the Zoning Commission is a five-member board that rules on major land-use issues. Three members are District residents appointed by the mayor and the other two are federal appointees, one a representative from the Architect of the Capitol, the other from the National Park Service. This setup might sound strange, but it’s actually very typical of a city whose attempts at self-governance are often plagued by undue federal interference. And unlike most other legislatures, the D.C. Council does not have the right to review land-use rulings, giving the Zoning Commission even greater power over how the city develops.

Chair Anthony Hood, who has served on the commission for a whopping 12 years, is a neighborhood activist who leads meetings with a healthy dose of folksiness. His term expired in Feb. 2010, but he has continued to serve after former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s nominee to replace him, developer Stanley Wall, was rejected by the council for lacking Hood’s neighborly sensibilities.

Another commissioner with high regard for neighbors’ concerns is Konrad Schlater, the commission’s Vice-Chair. Although a developer by trade, Schlater often argues that impact on neighbors is the “most important” factor in deciding cases.

The final mayoral-appointee is Greg Selfridge, a developer whose term expires in Feb. 2011. Selfridge, who was appointed to serve out the remainder of a former commissioner’s term, is a bit of a mystery. He says very little in meetings and in his confirmation hearings, he distinguished himself only by revealing a general ignorance of the District’s zoning regulations.

Of the federal appointees, the one who really stands out is Peter May, the National Park Service representative. Called out by smart-growth blog Greater Greater Washington for being “anti-urban,” May has a reputation for being nitpicky when reviewing cases. However, May is a Georgetown alum, so maybe his persnicketiness will be tempered by fond feelings for his alma mater. May’s fellow federal appointee, Michael Turnbull, who represents the Architect of the Capitol, tends to be more moderate and has an adorable penchant for sporting bowties at hearings.

The Zoning Commission deals with broad zoning issues and large projects, while its sister commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, deals with smaller-scale projects and special exceptions to the zoning code. It was only in 2000, though, that review of local schools’ campus plans was shifted from the realm of the BZA to the commission. So while you may have heard horror stories about the 2000 Campus Plan’s zoning approval process, it’s important to keep in mind that this will be the first Georgetown University Campus Plan that the Zoning Commission reviews. That said, the commission will be using the same rules of procedure and review criteria that the BZA did.

And what a complicated procedure it is. According to D.C.’s Zoning Regulations, the Zoning Commission has to ensure that University growth “will not tend to affect adversely the use of neighboring property” and “is not likely to become objectionable to neighboring property because of noise, traffic, number of students, or other objectionable criteria.”

This broad standard requires the commission to hear testimony from pretty much anyone who could be impacted by the plan, including the applicant (according to Rachel Pugh, university director of media relations, Georgetown’s presentation will be made by none other than President John DeGioia), the D.C. Office of Planning, the Department of Transportation, other relevant city agencies, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and any individuals or groups who want to speak in favor of or against the plan. After the hearings (which will all be broadcast live on the Zoning Commission’s website) and deliberation, the Zoning Commission will either approve the plan or send it back for tweaking or a full-scale reworking.

According to Office of Zoning Spokesperson Sara Bardin, recent campus plans from other local universities have taken anywhere from 11 to 20 months to go from initial filing to Zoning Commission ruling. That’s a lengthy timeframe—and it doesn’t even include the process for appeals, which can either go through the commission itself or the D.C. Court of Appeals.  Since any party in the case can appeal the commission, such an outcome can’t be ruled out in highly contentious cases like our Campus Plan.  So if you thought this past year and a half was arduous, get ready—we’ll have a long time to get to know the ins and outs of the D.C. Zoning Commission.

Let Juliana zone your borders at jbrint@georgetownvoice.com



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