Zoning Town Hall Recap

Attendees listen to officials from the Office of Planning and DCRA. photo by alex frederick.

Attendees listen to officials from the Office of Planning and DCRA. photo by alex frederick.

By Rob Russell and Ann Carper

This summary was reviewed and edited for accuracy by Joel Lawson/Office of Planning and Tarek Bolden/DCRA (with additional information provided by Anovia Daniels/DCRA).

Approximately 40 Burleith residents and others attended the March 15 town hall devoted to changes in the DC Zoning Code that was held at Washington International School. After welcoming guests and noting that Burleith is now in zone R-20 (rather than the previous R-3), BCA president Eric Langenbacher turned the meeting over to Lenore Rubino, a long-term resident and member of the Neighborhood Study Group. The group, which cosponsored the meeting with the BCA, evolved from discussions on the Burleith listserv about change in the neighborhood and the community’s need to have information about various options to address it. Ms. Rubino said the group is working on a survey to assess community opinions.

Four District government representatives attended the meeting: Joel Lawson, associate director, development review, Office of Planning; Anne Fothergill, development review specialist, Office of Planning; Tarek Bolden, program analyst, zoning enforcement, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs; and Jerry Chapin, Ward 2 liaison from the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations.

The city is soliciting amendments to the plan through May 26. Information on the process and community meetings is available at PLANDC.dc.gov.

The city is soliciting amendments to the plan through May 26. Information on the process and community meetings is available at PLANDC.dc.gov.

Joel Lawson said the 2016 zoning regulations (ZR-16) took effect in September 2016 after an 8-year overhaul of the 1958 regulations (ZR-58). Mr. Lawson said revision took far longer than initially anticipated. He said the update was necessary because ZR-58 had become cumbersome and hard to use, but also because the DC Comprehensive Plan mandated doing it. (The Comprehensive Plan sets the broad planning goals for the city, and the zoning plan must be consistent with the plan. The plan is updated on a 4–5 year cyclical basis, and is undergoing an 18-month amendment process now.)

Although many specific zoning code regulations stayed the same, there were also some major changes, and a significant reorganization of the code. He reviewed a handout from his office that compared some of the changes between the old R-3 and new R-20, cautioning that this summary should not be used to determine what may or may not be possible on an individual property. Among the changes that interested attendees was by-right building height, which was reduced from 40 feet in ZR-58 to 35 feet in ZR-16 with 40 feet permitted by special exception. The number of allowable stories remains at three, not including the cellar. Parapets, roof decks, and railings that are less than four feet in height don’t count in the height measurement. Also, if a neighbor’s house is 40 feet high, then the next-door neighbor’s renovation can go up 40 feet as well.

Definitions below are found in the zoning regulations (Subtitle B - Definitions, Rules of Measurement, and Use Categories, Chapter 1, page 9 of PDF).

  • Building, Attached: A building that abuts or shares walls on both side lot lines with other buildings on adjoining lots.
  • Building, Detached: A freestanding building that does not abut any other building and where all sides of the building are surrounded by yards or open areas within the lot.
  • Building, Semi-detached: A building that abuts or shares one (1) wall, on a side lot line, with another building on an adjoining lot and where the remaining sides of the building are surrounded by open areas or street lot lines.

Although the percentage of lot occupancy allowed did not change from ZR-58 to ZR-16 for Burleith houses, some attendees felt recent teardowns and extensive remodels appeared to exceed height and lot restrictions. Mr. Lawson said the new regulations apply to new permit applications, noting that we may see new and ongoing construction being done that was permitted under the old regulations. Mr. Lawson said that a new rule under consideration by the Zoning Commission [and since approved; see below] would restrict rear additions on houses to 10 feet beyond their immediate neighbors’ houses (subject to lot coverage and rear yard). In the front of the house, set backs must be consistent with neighbors. Open porches and stairs can be built on the front, but an enclosed structure, like a vestibule or mudroom, could not.

The change that caught attendees by surprise related to “pop-backs,” even though this regulation had been publicly discussed since 2014. In ZR-58, pop-backs were not regulated except by lot occupancy and rear yard. In a pending amendment (ZC Case 14-11B, subsequently approved on March 27 and effective when the rulemaking is published in the DC Register), pop-backs on attached and semi-detached buildings would be limited to a maximum of 10 feet beyond the rear wall of adjacent buildings. Relief from the regulation—to allow a deeper rear extension—would be permitted by special exception. Mr. Lawson said this amendment was proposed after meetings with various communities and at the request of the Zoning Commission. While some meeting attendees felt the change would impede redevelopment of Burleith and especially discourage young families who might wish for more space, others felt it would protect homeowners from the “tunneling” effect of long extensions on either side.  

Waivers for variances or special exceptions from zoning code regulations can be requested from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, a five-person board; the process includes a public hearing, ANC notice, neighbor notifications, and signage of public hearing.

In response to a question, Mr. Lawson said that ZR-16 took provisions of special overlays and combined the old zones, so there are now no “special overlays.” An alternative is a “custom zone” which is used when neighborhoods want to “massage a nuance.” Past experience indicates that it can take about 2–3 years for a neighborhood to come to general consensus on such a zoning text amendment and what the custom features would be; once filed, the process takes about 8 to 12 months typically. Any proposed change must be ”not inconsistent” with the Comprehensive Plan.

Tarek Bolden, DCRA Office of the Zoning Administrator, said DCRA inspection staff will do zoning inspections on properties if there is a suspected zoning regulation violation. They fine properties ($2,000 per violation), but primarily seek to bring issues into compliance, either by fixing/changing the construction or getting the right permits. The standard final inspection process reviews all permits for compliance to the approved plans for that project. This happens for all construction projects.

In response to a question about new construction blocking existing solar panels on a neighboring house, Mr. Bolden said the rules restricting pop-up development next to properties with solar panels only apply in the RF (Residential Flat) districts. They are not applied in the R-19 or R-20 zoning districts. 

In response to a question about the definition of a raze, Mr. Bolden said a zoning raze is complete, whereas if three walls remain, that’s considered part of the renovation. Because DCRA does not have many enforcement staff, he encouraged attendees to contact him or his office if we feel something is wrong. Illegal construction does not set building precedents. He can be reached at (202) 299-2196 and Tarek.bolden@dc.gov.

Detail of 2016 Interactive DC Zoning Map from DC Office of Zoning.

Detail of 2016 Interactive DC Zoning Map from DC Office of Zoning.