Custom Zoning Summary

By Carol Baume and Ann Carper

On Wednesday, October 25, approximately 40 people attended a community meeting devoted to a discussion of managing change in the neighborhood and of custom zoning in particular. Held at the Washington International School and sponsored by the BCA, BCA president Eric Langenbacher opened the session by noting that this was the fifth gathering in the managing change series (see below for specifics and website links), which also encompasses consideration of historic district designation.

Neighborhood Study Group. Langenbacher introduced the members of the Neighborhood Study Group (Carol Baume, Ed Levy, Walter Hillabrant, and Lenore Rubino, with Nan Bell as the BCA observer), which was tasked with exploring regulatory options to manage development in the neighborhood. In April 2017, the group conducted a survey to assess if there were neighborhood concerns about the amount and type of development taking place. (Prospective respondents were twice notified of the online link to Survey Monkey] via the Burleith Yahoo listserv and twice via the BCA membership email list. In addition, a postcard notification was sent to all Burleith property owners, whether Burleith residents or not.)

Survey Results. Carol Baume reviewed the survey results, which were posted on the website in June 2017. Respondents had to be a Burleith resident and/or property owner. One survey per person and a maximum of two surveys per address were permitted; 206 valid responses were received. In addition to four main questions, the results contained 21 pages of comments from respondents. The majority of respondents (82%) were resident homeowners; 11% were non-resident home owners; and 7% were renters. See the full results for details.

Question 1: To what degree do you approve or disapprove of the scale and scope of ongoing construction in Burleith? This question asks for an opinion about the amount of construction taking place. As of last April when the survey was conducted, the neighborhood was fairly equally divided between those who approved (either strongly or somewhat) of the amount of construction and those who disapproved (either strongly or somewhat).

Question 2: To what extent do you approve or disapprove of the following aspects of construction in Burleith? Responses were rated on a five-point scale representing “strongly approve (1)” to “strongly disapprove (5)."

  • Houses razed/demolished: strong disapproval
  • Third-floor additions visible from front: fairly even approval/disapproval
  • Third-floor additions that are visible only from the rear: strong approval
  • Additions that reduce neighbors’ sunlight and view: tendency to disapprove
  • Modern style houses: tendency to disapprove
  • Rear renovations different from Burleith style: tendency to approve or “neither approve nor disapprove”
  • Roof decks visible from front: tendency to disapprove
  • Removal or redesign of original front porch: tendency to approve or “neither approve nor disapprove”
  • Building onto the front of the house: tendency to disapprove
  • Backyards converted to parking lots: strong disapproval

Question 3: To what degree are you concerned about the following [five areas]?

  • Quality of architectural design was of greatest concern.
  • Quality of construction materials was also of very high concern.
  • Concern about damage resulting from neighboring construction was very high.
  • Construction dust, pollutants, and contaminants were of high concern.
  • Construction noise was somewhat less of an issue.

Question 4: Would you like the community to present more information on possible options for managing development in Burleith? 75% answered yes; 25% answered no.

Joel Lawson, DC Office of Planning. Joel Lawson, associate director, Development Review, DC Office of Planning, answered four questions that Langenbacher had submitted to him earlier.

What is custom zoning—what can and can't be addressed (i.e., does custom zoning affect things like building materials or architectural style)? Custom zoning is zoning tailored to a neighborhood and its wishes to achieve. Burleith (like Georgetown) is in the R-20 zone, which is one of the most restrictive rowhouse zones in the city. A custom zone covers building form and use, but does not address building materials or style. Lawson said those elements are “too squishy” for zoning, adding that if regulating them is important to the community, then historic designation should be considered. He said the neighborhood does not have to craft specifics for the new zone; the Office of Planning would help draft language consistent with the zoning code to achieve the neighborhood’s wishes.

What is the process for requesting a custom zone? The process to create a custom zone is outlined in the 2016 zoning regulations under Subtitle X – General Procedures, Chapter 4 (page 34 of PDF). The new zone must be consistent with the city’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan, which the District government uses to guide future development within the city and is being updated now. (For more information, go to It’s up to the neighborhood to decide what it wants to achieve, and to reach “overwhelming” consensus on what to do, although there is no magic number or percentage of households that must approve, he said. Once that neighborhood conversation has happened and some level of agreement reached, the neighborhood could work with Planning staff to discuss the best means to achieve it—whether through zoning or other processes.

Most areas work through their ANCs, whose opinions are given “great weight” in the decision process and which do not have to pay the application filing fee, which is otherwise substantial. The application must clearly define boundaries with a lot-by-lot description. The application is submitted to the Office of Zoning. The Office of Planning comments, and the Zoning Commission makes the decision. The decision is completely independent of the political process, with no appeal to the DC Council.

Are there any examples of other DC neighborhoods having achieved a custom zone? Lawson noted that the existing R-20 zone is a custom zone, and often used as the example for a custom zone. Lanier Heights, in the northeast section of Adams Morgan, changed from an R-5B zone to R-4, which is not a custom zone, but was a downzoning and is not applicable to Burleith. (See discussion of Paul Levy’s talk below.)

Are there any other alternatives such as a conservation district? Is there a difference between a custom zone and a zoning overlay? A conservation district, which some consider “Historic Designation lite,” does not exist and is not part of the zoning code. A zoning overlay was how custom zoning was done under the old zoning regulations, but is also not contained in the 2016 zoning code. Instead of an overlay, a custom tailored zoned would be created.

Lawson then briefly covered changes in the 2016 zoning code that affect Burleith as an R-20 zone, specifics of which can be found in Title: 11 Zoning Regulations of 2016, Subtitle: 11-D Residential House (R) Zones. The code governs development standards, density, height, lot occupancy, setbacks, pervious surfaces, among other issues. Of importance in the new code is the reduction in building height from 40 to 35 feet, and the 10-foot set back from a neighboring property. Specifically, “a rear wall of an attached or semi-detached building shall not be constructed to extend farther than 10 feet beyond the farthest rear wall of any adjoining principal residential building on an adjoining property” unless approved as a special exception by the Board of Zoning Adjustment and subject to the provisions and limitations of the zoning code. Lawson said that applicants for special exceptions have a better chance of Board of Zoning Adjustment approval if they work with neighbors to address their possible issues before filing so that neighbors are aware of plans before they receive a notice of public hearing.

Paul Levy, Lanier Heights. Paul Levy, an attorney and resident of the Lanier Heights section of Adams Morgan (north of Columbia Road and east of Calvert Street), discussed the successful re-zoning effort he helped organize there. The intent of his group’s efforts was to preserve the prevailing rowhouse character and density by not allowing rowhouses to be subdivided into more than two apartment units as well as limiting height, pop-backs, and pop-forwards. The group canvassed door to door, collecting signatures from about 100 of the some 160 rowhouses, mostly owner occupied, in the area.

The group then went to the ANC, which held a community forum and two other meetings. Neighbors were overwhelmingly in favor. The ANC submitted the application, and then there were two to three meetings before the Zoning Commission. Following three years of discussion and “lots of work,” the re-zoning was approved around 2014. (An earlier attempt at historic designation was vociferously opposed. Levy said the group didn’t work through the now-defunct neighborhood association, whose leaders favored development.)

The meeting concluded by 9 p.m.

(In response to a question from the audience about the voting process for historic designation, Langenbacher replied that the point of the meeting was to discuss zoning and that the voting process would be outlined later.)

Managing Change Meetings

  • February 25, 2016 – Kim Williams from DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and Paul DonVito from Palisades Village historic district
  • June 16, 2016 – Kim Williams from DC HPO
  • September 14, 2016 – David Maloney and Kim Williams from DC HPO
  • March 15, 2017 – Joel Lawson and Anne Fothergill from DC Office of Planning and Tarek Bolden, DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs