Photo by mueredecine on Flickr.

The group calling itself “Neighbors for Neighborhoods,” which recently circulated an alarmist flyer about DC’s zoning update that is almost entirely false, strikes again. A recent email to Cleveland Park residents makes a new set of wild and almost entirely incorrect claims.

At-large councilmember Michael Brown met with opponents and then sent a letter to the Zoning Commission, where he worried about “the groundswell of anxiety” about the proposals.

There is a simple way to avoid mass hysteria around the zoning update. The people organizing to fight it need to actually bother to understand it. Not every resident will absorb every detail, but they can learn from others who do.

Unfortunately, instead of educating neighbors, the people sending alarmist emails to certain neighborhood listservs are instead spreading misinformation and then complaining that residents are confused.

Email spreads myths

The latest email makes 4 charges:

Attack 1: Under proposed new commercial and residential zoning rules, increased building height + density, lot occupancy, and use could fundamentally degrade your home’s environment and value.

False. No zones allow taller buildings than they do today. No zone’s lot occupancy will change at all. The only change to lot occupancy removes an incentive to fill in courtyards and side yards, thereby leading to less density rather than more.

No floor-area ratios (FAR), the standard measure of density, increase in any zones outside downtown. None of the height limits in any zones outside downtown will increase. There’s a small change to how to measure heights, which will more often make the height rules more restrictive than the reverse.

Opponents seem to have assumed that the zoning update is massively upzoning their neighborhoods, and speaking on that basis, even though it is not.

Plus, this statement seems designed to alarm rather than inform. Who says “your home” will have its value degrade? One of the changes which is genuine, allowing accessory dwellings, will likely increase the value of most homes because people will be able to rent out a garage, bringing in income, which they can’t do today.

Attack 2: Redevelopment on or adjacent to a bus line — designated a “transit zone” — could substantially exceed building allowed today.

Again, false. “Transit” zones only vary from non-transit zones in 2 ways, neither of which allows larger buildings and one of which is more restrictive. Also, single-family house zones, the ones “Neighbors For Neighborhoods” is trying to agitate, won’t be “transit zones” even if they are right next to transit.

In non-SFH zones near transit, new buildings will not have minimum parking requirements, but there will be stricter limits on driveways. If a commercial or mixed-use property backs onto an alley, in a transit zone it will have to use the alley for any driveway instead of a curb cut in the front. That’s because around transit lines, the design of the buildings should better accommodate pedestrian traffic.

Attack 3: New code standards would be “matter of right”, i.e. implementing new rules would require no review nor allow citizen comment.

This sounds like something a person would say who doesn’t understand any zoning laws, anywhere. Any zoning code allows some things “matter of right,” other things after a hearing (in DC, by “special exception”), and some things not at all unless a zoning board grants a “variance” after a more rigorous and difficult process.

The new zoning code continues this. A few things which need special exceptions do become matter of right, such as an accessory dwelling. A few things which require variances become special exceptions. But rather than argue against any specific changes on policy grounds, this email tries to frighten residents by implying that all building would suddenly happen without any public review.

Attack 4: Overlays designed to protect some communities from inappropriate development or uses would be removed.

Entirely false. Overlays will not exist in the new code as such, but all of the rules of the overlays remain. Right now, up to 3 separate and sometimes conflicting sets of rules can apply to a single piece of land. For example, my house is in an R-5-B (row house) zone under the Dupont Circle overlay. To understand my zoning, I have to look in 2 places, which have different standards.

Under the new code, I will live in an AT-4-B zone. All of the rules of the Dupont Circle overlay are part of AT-4-B. People not in the Dupont Circle overlay instead will have their property zoned AT-3-B. The advantage of this system is that a property owner only needs to look in one place for the rules about setbacks, FAR, and so on, instead of two or more.

For example, one end of my block is in an SP-1 zone. A building owner recently proposed a new exterior stair which I originally thought violated zoning, since the SP-1 zoning requires a 12-foot rear yard setback and “egress stairs” can only break into the rear setback by 4 feet. As it turns out, that’s because the Dupont Circle overlay is more permissive with rear yards in SP-1 zones, but that wasn’t clear enough when I looked at the SP-1 text in the old zoning code.

When I read the new zoning code, it was far more clear. The area will be an MT-2-A zone, where the Dupont Circle overlay rules apply. In the text for MT-2-A, it listed the different rear yard measurement standard right there with the other information for MT-2-A. There was no need to remember to look in 2 places; it’s all in one.

The Office of Planning has posted a table listing all of the current zones and overlays and what designation each will get in the new code. The authors of the alarmist email, who claim OP hasn’t provided enough information, must not have looked at that table.

Brown repeats myths

Councilmember Michael Brown’s letter, sadly, falls for much of the same misinformation. The letter warns against nonexistent goals of the zoning rewrite and repeats opponents’ charge that a 5-year process with hundreds of community meetings, and most of a year or more left to run, is “moving too fast.”

He says, “A one-size-fits all approach doesn’t seem right for our city, with its rich history of unique neighborhoods, but that seems to be the direction we are heading.” The draft zoning code has 94 different zones and myriad different paragraphs that customize rules for each neighborhood. It’s hard to seriously conclude that this is any kind of “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Brown writes that “The code should not be used as a blunt instrument to drive unsupported social change,” but doesn’t specify how a zoning update which takes great pains to change very little in single-family neighborhoods is either a “blunt instrument” or one driving “unsupported social change.”

Below is the full text of the email, which went to the Cleveland Park Citizens’ Association listserv.

CPCA members might be interested in a new group addressing the comprehensive changes proposed for the DC Zoning Code which the Zoning Commission will adopt later this year or early next year. 

Neighbors for Neighborhoods (N4Ndc) is organizing to alert DC residents to the need to respond to the proposed new regulations.  Beginning with chapters in Chevy Chase DC, 16th Street Heights, AU Park and the Queens Chapel area, N4Ndc is forming new chapters in all neighborhoods. N4Ndc is a multi-neighborhood effort to make positive zoning changes for DC residents citywide.

Fathoming details of the proposed new Code requires persistence, fortitude and imagination, but here are some generalities:

  • Under proposed new commercial and residential zoning rules, increased building height + density, lot occupancy, and use could fundamentally degrade your home’s environment and value.
  • Redevelopment on or adjacent to a bus line — designated a “transit zone” — could substantially exceed building allowed today.
  • New code standards would be “matter of right”, i.e. implementing new rules would require no review nor allow citizen comment.
  • Overlays designed to protect some communities from inappropriate development or uses would be removed.

While N4Ndc is building awareness of potential zoning changes in DC’s diverse neighborhoods, individual residents are encouraged to inform the Office Planning and public officials of particular concerns.  N4Ndc can help you pinpoint your concerns and tell you where to direct your emails.  Do not expect CPCA nor any other group to represent your specific concerns:  you have the power of the pen, and you possess the right to speak up.

Recently, At-Large City Councilmember Michael Brown has aligned with N4Ndc’s goals in a letter to the Zoning Commission. He urged that more outreach is necessary before the new regulations are adopted. He said, “This code has to ‘make sense’ to the public before adoption, not after [and] should not be used as a blunt instrument to drive unsupported social change. And we should not take for granted the hard-earned tranquility of our residents.” He warned particularly about allowing Accessory Housing Units in all residential neighborhoods and expressed concerns about greater development in “transit zones.”

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.