Photo by Leo Reynolds on Flickr.

Did you know that DC’s zoning rewrite will change residential streets in low-density neighborhoods into dense commercial ones? Encourage the building of mega-mansions close to lot lines on all sides? Bring a fraternity house next door to your home?

If you didn’t know that, congratulations! You are well informed. The zoning rewrite will not do any of this.

However, a flyer being distributed in Chevy Chase is trying to alarm residents with a combination of outright falsehoods and misleading spin.

It begins:

The city Planning Office (OP) is completely rewriting the city’s zoning codes. Their task morphed from simply making the code more “user friendly” to fundamentally altering neighborhoods across the city through dramatic zoning changes.


SPECIFIC AREAS OF CONCERN. We identified four major areas of concern to Chevy Chase. Each is explained below:

The hysteria goes beyond the excessive capitalization. Each of these 4 items, and the preamble, is false. Very little will change in Chevy Chase The zoning update will not “fundamentally change” Chevy Chase. Almost all its land is zoned for low-density residential development. OP has made it absolutely clear that “transit zones” will not apply to the low density residential areas at all, even when they are near transit. That means that single-family housing, even if it’s just a few hundred feet from a Metro station, won’t change. The zoning update will allow a few limited “corner” stores in residential areas, but these also won’t apply to the low-density areas like Chevy Chase. No homes can “change into business” units in the neighborhood. The Office of Planning has bent over backward to ensure that very little will change in single-family home neighborhoods like this. Some think they should have been more aggressive in removing regulations which so severely limit what a homeowner can do with his or her property, but they chose a more conservative path. That hasn’t stopped charges that they are plotting wholesale destruction of neighborhoods. Furthermore, the zoning update has been going on for over 4 years. OP has had hundreds of public meetings and offered to meet with any organization that wishes it. They return phone calls promptly and very patiently explain complex concepts. It is laughable to suggest that there has been “no transparency” or a “compressed schedule.” OP has posted documents from each phase online. The current draft chapters are available to anyone, even though it’s not even a finalized draft for official public comment. If all of this is compressed, what would not be a compressed schedule? What is enough “transparency”? Flyer’s facts are simply wrong The flyer claims that OP is reducing rear setbacks from 25 to 20 feet, but according to Dan Emerine of the Office of Planning, that is not true at all. The flyer says that side setbacks can decline from 8 to 5 feet without mentioning that anyone building with a 5-foot setback on one side has to leave 10 feet on the opposite side, for lots at the minimum allowed width. Houses in single-family neighborhoods like Chevy Chase are constrained more by the lot occupancy, which limits the percentage of land a house can cover, than the side setbacks. Those lot occupancy limits aren’t changing, meaning that houses can’t cover any more footprint. Property owners will just have a very tiny bit more flexibility in where their houses sit on the lot. It says that “‘non-profit and institutional uses,’ ... including fraternity houses, ‘service organizations’ and a variety of non-profits” can locate in residential houses. Emerine said more permissive rules for some institutional uses were part of an early draft shown to the Task Force, but the current plan is to leave the regulations for institutional uses as restrictive or more so than today. Also, fraternity houses definitely don’t qualify under the definition of institutional or service organizations. The misunderstanding stems from an erroneous chart that went out to a few people, Emerine noted. OP corrected the chart, but the fear stuck. The flyer says,
The “transit” streets would see blocks of houses replaced “as a matter of right” by commercial activity or more dense residences (think multi-family). These changes could occur not only on Military, for example, but on any street within 500 feet of it.  Streets like Chevy Chase Parkway, Nevada Ave, 32nd Steret, 27th Street, etc. — a two block swath outward from the transit street.
Actually, no. This sounds like something that came out of a game of “telephone” where people tried to explain the zoning update to one another. One person noted that there will be transit streets; another mentioned some sort of 500-foot radius around the streets; and the author concludes that any residential property within 500 feet can suddenly house large apartment buildings. It can’t. A transit line could affect commercial areas or multi-family residential areas within 500 feet, but not single-family residential areas. Some people in DC think it should, but OP doesn’t agree. The rewrite will indeed make some changes to the code, though in places like Chevy Chase they are very minor. Accessory dwellings like garage apartments will become legal. A building 40 feet tall, as zoning allows today, could hold 4 ten-foot stories instead of just 3 taller stories. Residents should indeed learn about and understand the changes in the zoning update, and make up their own minds. But they should form conclusions based on the truth, not distortions that prey on people’s fears. Alarmism doesn’t help solve real problems People in Chevy Chase have real concerns that nobody should dismiss. Many dislike teardowns and “McMansions” replacing historic homes. But the changes in the zoning update will have little effect. Would anyone replace a building only to move it laterally by a few feet? How many property owners who don’t want to tear down and rebuild their entire house today, suddenly would once they can rent out a garage apartment? Very, very few, if any. At a recent meeting of the Federation of Citizens’ Associations to discuss the issue, several people asked whether the zoning code would allow certain types of changes to properties—but the current code already allows those changes. McMansions are legal under current zoning. Anyone can tear down their home in Chevy Chase; the neighborhood overwhelmingly rejected a historic district that would have prevented that. Chevy Chase residents worried about certain types of building should advocate for zoning changes which actually address their concerns rather than just taking a knee-jerk position of opposing the zoning update. OP has added some restrictions in the zoning code: Geoff Hatchard and I pushed for limits on locating parking in front of commercial buildings, and OP even agreed to accelerate that provision. Unfortunately, instead of trying to work with OP to use zoning to solve the neighborhood’s problems, a number of people have decided to simply oppose the entire endeavor and refuse to speak with OP staff to separate truth from fiction.  Residents of Chevy Chase should look for real information, not agitprop.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.