Housing Complex

Zoning Rewrite Hysteria Continues

Man, these Neighbors for Neighborhoods people raising hell over the Office of Planning's proposed zoning overhaul sure are masters of the hyperbolic email. In addition to the one David Alpert debunked at Greater Greater Washington yesterday, an organizer named Linda Schmitt had the Committee of 100's Alma Gates—she of the Harry Potter-style publicity campaigns—post another on the Palisades list yesterday. It begins:

"That's crazy," they say as they take a step back. "They can't be serious!" "Yes they are serious," I say, and launch into explanation of proposed zoning changes. Friends, neighbors and strangers react the same when I tell the real life tale of the city's overhaul of the zoning code.

Stand-alone living units plopped into any neighbor's back yard, for rent, for whoever, even in "single family" housing areas. All streets within a half mile of a Metro stop or major bus route would be called a "Transit Zone" and properties would be developed without parking. Why? To extract people (meaning me and thee) from cars and get them to walk vigorously to a Metro stop. Think about wrestling a toddler and a baby in a stroller into a Metro station, through the stiles, down the escalator, onto the train and home again. Fun? Add some groceries. You'd think parking was the devil's work. And that Metro is perfection itself. Yes, I guess I have to agree, "it's crazy."

Schmitt should stop worrying about the "standalone living units." The proposed regs for apartment zones explicitly provide that the accessory dwellings not compromise their neighbors' light, air, enjoyment, and privacy, and that they "shall not substantially visually intrude upon the character, scale and pattern of houses along the subject street frontage." Even where they are allowed by right in single family zones—which is recommended by the AARP—there well be restrictions on size and protections for neighbor privacy.* Yes, minimum parking requirements will disappear in some commercial areas, but not according to a radius around Metro stations. 

So we—neighbors across the city—16th Street Heights, Queens Chapel, AU Park, Chevy Chase and more—have formed a group (N4Ndc) to alert people to the proposed changes. Why us? Because the city hasn't. Why now? Because the city wants these changes adopted by the end of the year. Why change? Well, they won't say.

Fifty years with the original zoning code seduced us into thinking "maybe a few changes, but no big deal." Our normal confidence that in the end the city will more or less do the right thing has lulled us into a false sense of security.

These changes, the Office of Planning says, would be a "matter of right," meaning nobody would have ability to comment on, object to or say "boo" about what a neighbor could do along these lines. How many stories in a house? It's been three stories but now they say "no limit on stories." On the other hand, they say 40 feet high. But why say "no limit" on stories? How does that work? Houses closer together? Sure. Try to get a ladder up for the painter after the setback's been changed to five feet. No driveways? That's right.

Is she really worried about people cramming eight-foot-high stories under a given height? Nobody who wants to lease, sell, or live in their building would do that. And yes, the new minimum side yard width would be five feet, but the requirements are proportional to the width of the lot—some will even increase. In areas where residential buildings will not be required to have parking spaces, they will also not have to have driveways, but nobody's going to prevent you from building one, or take one away that already exists.

This is real. Our homes, our neighborhoods and our tranquility is at risk. Help us get the word out; we are N4Ndc, and we want to play a constructive part in engaging the city on the proposed zoning code. Our website www.N4Ndc.com is in the works; until it's up and running, you can contact us at LSchmitt1@aol.com. We have no other agenda than to get the word out, help communities figure out what their concerns are, and have a say in what does—or doesn't—get approved.

And don't forget: emails to the mayor, Councilmember and the Office of Planning are critical. Before our residential rights are whisked away, take the next step, speak your mind.

Linda Schmitt


Neighbors for Neighborhoods

LSchmitt1@aol.com (Note the "1" after "tt")

Everybody's for more information and resident engagement here. I look forward to N4Ndc's informative and explanatory website. But spewing breathless, distorted accounts of what the new zoning code will do is hardly constructive behavior, as Schmitt claims to want.

* CORRECTION, May 10: This post initially confused regulations on accessory dwelling units in apartment and single family zones.

  • Drez

    I am not at all sure you are right on any number of things you write here, Lydia.
    Take this low-hanging fruit: Is she really worried about people cramming eight-foot-high stories under a given height? Nobody who wants to lease, sell, or live in their building would do that.
    There are lots of people living in DC in "English basement" (more likely really illegal in-law) apartments with less headroom than that.
    Standalone apartments in rear yards? Really? What about % lot occupancy, egress, FAR, etc?
    I think some concern, or at least cautious skepticism is sensible.
    For frame of reference, I've lived in DC for 20+ years, owned 5 homes in different neighborhoods, and have kids. I'm invested.

  • Mike

    Is it possible that you have not interpreted the proposed regs correctly?

    For example, you dismissed concerns about stand alone living units in single family zones (R-1 and R-2) with a link to the regulations that define the requirements for special exceptions for structures requiring relief from the required development standards in apartment zones.

    For the R-1 and R-2 areas, the proposed regs for accessory dwelling units in an accessory building would permit a unit by right provided it conforms to the development regulations, largely that the height is limited to 22 feet and the footprint is limited to 900 square feet, allowing an 1,800 square foot unit. There are no provisions to require a determination that they “shall not substantially visually intrude upon the character, scale and pattern of houses along the subject street frontage.”

    Currently, in these zones, there is a height limit of 40 feet, with no more than three stories. Your assertion that removing the limit on stories in these zones only makes a difference if people are “cramming eight-foot-high stories under a given height” seems to be based on the assumption that one would have to build five stories in order to exceed the current three story limit. Four stories can fit within the 40 foot height and allow for customary ceiling heights.

    A more careful review of the proposed regs might be in order before you describe community concerns as hysteria.

  • ModerateonHousing

    The assertion that tranist zones will include every acre within a half mile of a major bus line clearly is hysteria.

    The assertion that ending parking MINIMUMS in areas that ARE within transit zones means forcing people to use transit, and forcing moms to take their strollers, kids, and groceries on the metro, clearly is hysteria.

    The implication that driveways are banned in hysteria.

    Theres plenty there thats hysterical before getting into the nitty gritty of accessorary dwelling units (the zoning wonks on GGW get into that pretty well)

  • TM

    All you need to know butthis woman's motives is contained right there in the second quoted paragraph: "for whoever". On top of the poor grammar, this demonstrates the real fear, the possibility "whoever" might move into their neighborhood.

  • Mike

    @TM, The current regulations only allow external accessory units in these zones if they are occupied by domestic employees. With this limitation, they are few and far between.

    The proposal is to remove that limitation on who can occupy accessory units as well as increase the allowable size.

    Extending occupancy of those units beyond domestic employees means that it is much more likely that many neighbors along the alley will find it worthwhile to add accessory dwelling units, changing the nature of the neighborhood.

  • TM

    Yes, that's the point. When your fear about zoning changes boils down to a fear of a type of person and how that person "changes the nature of the neighborhood", you've lost all credibility.

  • tomdc

    You must not have lived here a couple years back when the English-Basement DC registration campaign was going on.

    The height requirement in DC is 7 feet. Some areas (bathrooms, halls, etc.) can be 6' 8'.

    The more likely way to get additional stories is to dig down somewhat to add to the 40'.

  • EH

    Many components to zoning code language are subject to interpretation. This is for a good reason. It is difficult to provide codified language that can anticipate every variation on a given subject. So, at times, language needs to be flexible enough to permit future debate/interpretation that can only reconciled through discourse. Often it takes the form of a lawsuit which sets a precedent.

    What you have, INHO are two camps of people reading the same language and drawing completely different conclusions. One side is coming at it from a pro-development side, the other from the “we are happy how things are” side. I think this is a perfectly rational and understandable situation.

    What some people may not have had experience with are zoning codes going through this process after codification. Sometimes you can’t anticipate what you have accepted until it is put into practice. And I think there are people in this town who have seen some terrible things happen when precedents are set that can irreversibly impact a neighborhood. So they are nervous, and raise alarm.

    Then I see people who are wanting change who are tired of all development seemingly being built around the car, and who think increased density will lower the cost of living. So they get defensive when their new ideas are met with skepticism and they brand opponents as old crazies. I think they are also a little bit more trusting of the process – after all, many of them have not lived through a re-zoning process in DC before.

    One thing is for sure – this will not be solved by immature dialogue, or by continuously branding each other as crazed, stupid, or out of touch. Or by branding people like Alma Gates as a Harry Potter character (really? Is that necessary?) It just isn’t helpful and I think it is inaccurate. The only thing that will solve this problem is by taking the concerns of both sides point-by-point, and matching up language in the code to each point to vet the issues in the open. And, as changes are made, those changes are highlighted so it is clear how those concerns have been addressed.

    At the end of the day it is the cooler heads that will prevail. Take the high road and start simply writing something about the facts devoid of personal attacks and hyperbole.

  • Mike

    @TM, You seem to have totally misunderstood what I wrote. The current zoning regulations are very limited in when one can have an external accessory dwelling in these zones. Specifically, they are only allowed when they are occupied by domestic employees. As a result, there are very few such units.

    The proposal is to allow these units by right in these zones, and increase the allowable size of those units. So, these additional residential structures, which currently are rare, could become widespread. The increase in the number of rear-yard residential units is what changes the nature of the neighborhood, not some "fear" of the “type of person” who might reside in these additional housing units.

    @EH: I agree, but while reasonable people might read the same language and draw different conclusions, one cannot reasonably rebut concerns about external dwelling units being matter of right in single family zones by citing the regulations for special exceptions in apartment zones.

    Lydia should be printing a correction, withdrawing her (erroneous) critique of the concerns about stand alone living units in single family zones and withdrawing her critique of concerns about removing the limit on the number of stories in those zones.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Mike - You're right, I was looking in the wrong section of the new code. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. As I note in the post now, according to the Office of Planning, even where ADUs are allowed by right, "there would continue to be a number of conditions that restrict the size of the unit, ensure owner occupation of the property, and protect the privacy of neighbors."


    From the person in charge of this process, Arlova Jackson:

    "We have tried to craft conditions that would address issues like light air by requiring a minimum distance between the main building and the accessory building (30 ft.). The 900 square foot building footprint is meant to be a maximum and is consistent with the size limit permitted today. However, we are not changing lot occupancy, so if the maximum permitted lot occupancy is 40%, that applies to all structures on the property, not just the main house. The size of the accessory building would be limited based on how much of the lot the main building already takes up.

    Our perspective has been that if we can get the conditions right to account for the impacts people are concerned about (whether it be size, number of people, or privacy), then in most cases we’ve obviated the need for a public hearing. In this regard, we’ve been guided by AARP’s Model Ordinance for Accessory Dwelling Units, which advises that the “optimal” approach is to allow ADUs by right."

  • Mike

    Lydia, In the post, you still cite the requirements for special exceptions in apartment zones to respond to concerns about accessory dwelling units in single family house zones.

    As to whether the conditions protect the light, air, enjoyment and privacy for the residents of neighboring homes, my opinion is that these conditions are not sufficient. But others might have a different opinion, so, I have listed below these conditions. Note, that while the accessory dwelling unit must be 30 feet from the principal building, there is no requirement with respect to the distance from neighboring homes. Note also that the applicable development regulations are that the footprint can be no more than 900 square feet, the height no more than 22 feet, and other requirements with respect to setbacks and lot occupancy. Currently, an accessory unit cannot exceed 15 feet in height (unless the building also includes a garage) and cannot exceed one story and can only be occupied by a domestic employee. Also, OP might be planning on correcting the language on how decks and balconies should be oriented with respect to neighboring properties.

    For the current R-1 and R-2 zones, one accessory dwelling unit shall be permitted by right in an accessory building, subject to the following conditions:

    The accessory building shall conform to all applicable development regulations;

    The accessory dwelling unit within an accessory building shall have pedestrian access to a public street via an alley, yard, an easement recorded with the Office of the Surveyor, or any combination of these pathways;

    The closest façade of the accessory building shall be separated from the closest façade of the principal building by a distance of thirty (30) feet minimum.

    Either the principal dwelling unit or accessory dwelling unit located in the accessory building must be occupied by the owner of the lot;

    A deck or balcony is permitted as a portion of any story of the accessory building; provided:

    (1) The deck or balcony is located entirely within the permitted footprint of the accessory building; and

    (2) The deck or balcony is oriented so as to not face away from a principal building on an adjoining property in an R zone; and

    An accessory building that houses an accessory dwelling unit may not be used at the same time for any other accessory use, other than as a private vehicle garage for either occupants of the property.

  • Eric

    This is all ridiculous. The emails, the neighborhood groups, and many of the responses to this post.

  • DC Guy

    I agree with Eric. This discussion hardly impacts any of the current R-1 zones from where the hystrionics are originating.

    The fact is, there are hundreds of very specific zones articulated in the draft codes, and the changes are so minute as to be laughable that these folks - the same ones who say "smart growth is great as long as it doesn't bring 'those' people into our community and as long as we can continue to park our cars in front of our houses."

    Maybe if and when these crazies get a brain and can properly comprehend the language and meaning behind the zoning code re-write, the broader community can engage in a meaningful discussion. Until then, well, I guess we can continue to laugh at exchanges such as the above.

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