Housing Complex

Norton to Gray and Mendelson: Please Stop Bickering Over the Height Act

Norton has had enough of the infighting.

Norton has had enough of the infighting.

Fresh off a congressional hearing at which disagreements among D.C. leaders over the Height Act came to the fore, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, sent a letter to Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson yesterday with a simple message: Your bickering is not helping matters.

D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning testified at the hearing on Monday in favor of greater D.C. autonomy over building height limits in parts of the city—limits that are currently set by the 1910 federal law and can only be changed by an act of Congress. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who presided over the hearing, expressed surprise that Mendelson and the Council had issued the opposite plea, requesting in a symbolic resolution that Congress not change the Height Act and instead keep full control over D.C.'s height limits.

"I heard to my astonishment, for the first time ever, a rejection of home rule," Issa said at the hearing. "I did not expect people to say, 'Please don't give me authority, I can't be trusted.'"

That left Norton in the awkward position of pushing for D.C. autonomy, a leading goal of hers, while also cautioning against a more vertical skyline that didn't have the support of D.C.'s elected legislators.

So yesterday, Norton sent a letter to Gray and Mendelson in which she warned "against indications that local elected officials cannot reach agreement on matters affecting the city’s own governance."

The full letter is below:

December 4, 2013

Dear Mayor Gray and Chairman Mendelson:

As you are aware, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on Monday, entitled “Changes to the Heights Act: Shaping Washington, DC for the Future Part II,” to consider the recommendations of the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) from the Height Act study requested by Chairman Darrell Issa.  Although the positions of the D.C. Office of Planning and the NCPC differ, I do not believe that their positions are irreconcilable if city leaders engage in appropriate discussions.  Serious conversations among city leaders should be able to take into account the understandable concerns of some residents who want more certainty against undesirable changes.  Considering our continuous efforts to defend and expand home rule, I caution against indications that local elected officials cannot reach agreement on matters affecting the city’s own governance.

Please let me know if I can be at all helpful.

Sincerely,

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Tom M

    EHN - is 22 years in office with a long history in local and national issues before that, yet she cannot establish a position HERSELF on removing or keeping the federal Heights Act" and resorts to a feeble "cannot ya'll just get along?" This is sad sad sad. Yes (nonvoting) Delegate Norton there is something you can do. Lead or get out of the way....

  • tntdc

    Tregoning, in the name of "home rule" wants to override the wishes of 90%+ of the citizens. That's not home rule, stupid.

    Speaking of stupid, Tregoning should have been fired long ago.

  • Lance

    +1 tntdc

    And I'll add to that that Tregoning made sure to submit her recommendations without even giving the Council an opportunity to review and comment on them. If Mendelson was had just 'gotten along' he would have been at the disadvantage of having to pretend Tregoning's suggestions in any way reflected the citizenry's wishes ... and they don't. Maybe Gray will come to realize that letting Tregoning lead on this issue is a true liability to his reputation.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    "Tregoning, in the name of "home rule" wants to override the wishes of 90%+ of the citizens. That's not home rule, stupid."

    The wishes of the people who spoke out was to keep current physical heights. Removing the FEDERAL height limit would not necessarily change that - DC would still have to change it. I think most residents simply were not clear on the distinction, while others, as Mendo implied, simply lack confidence in the DC governing process and would prefer to leave this issue in Congress's hands. It is difficult to make the case that DC govt is too irresponsible to be trusted on height, but not on the range of other issues that Congress wants to retain power on. I think that concern was implicit in Del Norton's letter.

  • E. Masquinongy

    Mr Walker, you talk too much.

    This issue is still dead.

    I wonder, does EHN understand what expiration date means on all those packages when she buys groceries? Does she buy groceries?

  • Lance

    @AWalkerInTheCity +1 "It is difficult to make the case that DC govt is too irresponsible to be trusted on height, but not on the range of other issues that Congress wants to retain power on."

    However, the source of the problem still lies with Tregoning who suddenly at the 11th hour started spinning this as 'home rule issue' vs. all the other reasons she'd held out over the last couple years. Because of this sudden change in spin AND because she never consulted with the Council to begin with, she put the Council in a very difficult position. Either they would go along with HER wishes, and alienate 90% of their residents, or oppose her, as they did, and be made to look like they were against home rule.
    Frankly, it's no more 'Home Rule' to let a Congressman from California change a basic governing law in the District, than it is NOT letting him change it contrary to the public's wishes. And to Mendelson's credit, he acknowledged the widely known truth that there's a 'pay to play' culture for developers in the District today ... and that given that reality, it was best to leave this fundamental law, which protects not only District interest but also federal interests, unchanged.

  • Alf

    "Mr Walker, you talk too much"

    Yes, and so much about DC development matters, when I recall that he's written that he doesn't even live in DC. More substantively, Tregoning's belated home rule argument ("changing the law doesn't mean changing the height") completely belies the whole prior stated purpose of her rogue initiative, which is to raise the height act or to eliminate it entirely. Tregoning did a complete end-run around the elected council and should be fired for it. And this is not "bickering" -- the council lined up all but unanimously behind no change to the height limit.

    Public opinion strongly is against changing the height limit. While EHN has slowed down a bit, she still knows how to count votes. And she knows the difference between home rule and home fool.

  • Colin

    To those asserting that 90% of Washingtonians like the height limit -- can you provide data? I have never seen polling done on this issue.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    @Colin +1

    I have no idea that 90% are against changes in the height limit. For sure, 90% of the people who had the time in the middle of the day to show up to endless hearings were against it, but I don't count those types as being representative of the city.

    In any event, this entire situation is analogous to something like taxes. You ask folks if they want their own taxes to go up and probably a large majority will say no; however, that doesn't mean that a large majority of people would support tax rates being set by Congress instead of our own locally elected officials.

  • AWalkerInTheCity

    "Yes, and so much about DC development matters, when I recall that he's written that he doesn't even live in DC."

    If someone posts about development matters in Fairfax, I would respond based on the substance of their post, not on where they live.

    Also, all our real estate markets are linked, and many of us are mobile, and what happens in one jurisdiction effects the rest of us.

    Now, is there anything I said in the comment above that is not correct?

    BTW the DC council voted to leave the height limit in Congress' hands. Ergo, the height limit in DC will not be determined by the Council, or by Ms Tregonning, but by Congress - ergo, when it comes up I need to know how to suggest to my congressman that he vote. I have more say in this than any of you do (not that I wanted it), and I want to exercise that say wisely ;)

  • Skeptic

    Meddling Congressperson Says DC Government Shouldn't Have to Take Orders from Meddling Congresspeople.

  • Skeptic

    Residents are perfectly clear on the distinction, Walker. They don't want the Height Act put into play or subject to exceptions. They also recognize what a travesty it is to pretend this is a home rule issue -- given both the way in which this agenda has been pushed and the fact that under Tregoning's proposal ultimate decisionmaking authority will be vested in a five member unelected board (2 fed appointees, 3 Mayoral) that relies upon her office for planning and vetting development projects.

    Reporters, Congresspeople, and Suburbanites seem to be less aware. Or maybe just pursuing other agendas.

  • DC

    Any DC resident who is content to rely on the Height Act to maintain a status quo they prefer cannot ever claim to be in favor of Home Rule. It's just that simple. You have a prefered policy choice and you don't trust your fellow citizens to agree with you so you fight to maintain a federal law that removes the issue from local control.

    Regardless on your stance over the height of buildings in this city, if you don't favor the demise of the Height Act, you don't believe in Home Rule. Period.

    Oh, and Lance is a bigot who refers to muslims as terrorists and was rightly banned from GGW. So just realize who you're casting your lot with.

  • drez

    I have yet to find an ANC commission or Council member that supports changing the height act.
    It's not a home rule issue if the people allready have what they want and don't trust the local mayoral administration will actually listen to them and leave well enough alone.

  • Skeptic

    There's simple and there's simplistic. It's simplistic to claim that allowing DC government (begging the question for the moment of whether that's the Office of Planning, the Mayor, the Council, the ZC or some combination thereof) to make "targeted exceptions" to the Height Act is a form of home rule.

    We don't have home rule as long as Congress can veto our laws and our budget. Congress would retain those powers and it would retain the Height Act. Tregoning's proposal is to LEAVE THE HEIGHT ACT IN PLACE, have CONGRESS amend it (to advance her preferred policy choice -- which included imposing a new formula for L'Enfant City that would raise heights there), and then to let DC government make exceptions to that law -- subject to federal veto.

    The Height Act is being cast as a home rule issue largely because the justifications initially offered for the proposed policy change (e.g. we need increased heights because we're on the verge of running out of room to grow and/or to create affordable housing) have been rejected as obvious BS. So we're down to "you are not the boss of me" (out of one side of Tregoning's mouth, while the other side is saying "don't worry, you'll still be able to veto anything you don't like.")

    Meanwhile, Norton, having made no progress on the issues that would actually give DC citizens local control and full representation in national politics, is hoping to declare a victory on home rule and call it a day. We already know she's pro pay-to-play. See, e.g.
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/461/transcript Norton testified that in the 20 years she's been in office no one (developer or citizen) has come to her asking for changes to the Height Act. I'm willing to bet that will change if/when targeted exceptions to the Height Act are allowed.

    And since we're already seeing the Chair of the House Oversight Committee trying to "shame" the Chair of the DC Council into ignoring the views of the voters who elected him in favor of "going along to get along" with Congress, this sure as hell doesn't look like local autonomy to me. What happens when some major donor to a member of the Oversight Committee wants an exception to the Height Act? Even if the decision is nominally up to "DC," Congress still has all the power it needs to keep DC in line.

  • WaitOneMinute

    "We already know she's pro pay-to-play"

    I read that transcript and I think thats an unfair reading. It has nothing to do with development limits, and does not suggest a quid pro quo. Its not even clear whose voicemail she left it on.

    "Norton testified that in the 20 years she's been in office no one (developer or citizen) has come to her asking for changes to the Height Act."

    considering the number of DC residents who have blogged in support of such changes in the last few weeks, thats very odd. Perhaps for some reason they did not go through her office.

  • Skeptic

    The local blogosphere is pretty much an echo chamber on development issues. Not a useful place to get a sense of public opinion more generally. NCPC did actually go out into communities, across the city, at night, and on weekends. And they made it really easy to comment online. They didn't just rely on daytime hearings downtown. It was a broad outreach effort on their part, albeit on a tight schedule.

  • SEis4ME

    This is a ridiculous argument indeed. Those in favor of raising it muddied the waters by first making it an affordable housing issue and then ending up w/a "home rule" one. I don't know what polls Norton is paying attention to either but outside Aaron, GGW-types and those who support Harriet, I haven't seen a groundswell of support for the idea.

    Since the council and OP seem to be on opposite sides of the issue (at least w/their votes) maybe someone didn't do a good enough job to make sure they weren't looking like complete imbeciles on the matter.

    And FWIW, of all the possible bigots who post regularly on GGW, Lance was the least of those. The big problem w/him is that he often shared a minority position that (contrary to the accusations of not allowing dissent) caused whatever opinion he might have to be viscerally attacked while at other times led to him being the victim of personal attacks and insults.

  • WaitOneMinute

    "The local blogosphere is pretty much an echo chamber on development issues. Not a useful place to get a sense of public opinion more generally. "

    but the claim was made that NO ONE contacted her to support it. No one at all. Zip. Nada. Zilch.

  • Skeptic

    Norton's written testimony was that "In my more than twenty years of service in Congress, neither business interests nor DC residents have approached me regarding changing the Height Act...."

  • E. Masquinongy

    To add to @Skeptic's points:

    There is already a mechanism to exceed the height limit; as the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was granted an exemption by the Zoning Commission back in the 50s. So all of this debate is over a point that is moot, basically.

    This issue is dead, dead, dead.

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