DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at the hearing.
After being postponed a day because of the threat of snow, the marathon 7-hour oversight of the Office of Planning almost entirely revolved around the same controversial subject as the last 4-5 years: the zoning update.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked tough questions of people on both sides of the issue. At first, he wondered how some people could say the Office of Planning did plenty of public outreach while others complained it was lacking, but later in the hearing, he began to realize that no amount of communication would satisfy opponents.
Councilmember Muriel Bowser (ward 4), meanwhile, breezed in at the end to voice opposition to a number of elements of the zoning update, but misunderstood some key provisions around accessory dwellings.
“What am I missing here?”
Many people testified, including representatives from Ward 3 Vision and other supporters of the zoning update, but there were many opponents as well.
After hearing many complaints about proposals to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and how threatening they would be to the character of neighborhoods, Chairman Mendelson tried to figure out what is so bad about having one in your neighborhood.
He calculated how many could fit in a block, then noted that not every property owner would want one. He asked Justine Kingham, “What am I missing here?”
When Kingham said that the issue is letting neighbors have a say in whether someone rents out a room in their house, Mendelson wondered aloud why it is anyone’s business but the resident’s own. “But should my neighbors decide whether I want somebody, one person coming in and out of the basement of my house or should I? Because that can be subjective.”
Kingham then suggested that the Office of Planning limit the number of people who can live in an ADU, raising the specter of 5 “students” sharing a garage. In fact, there are limits: a main house plus an ADU can have only a maximum of 6 people combined.
Bowser: Enlarging ADUs is the problem
After all of the members of the public testified, Councilmember Bowser spoke about the good work that OP did in her ward but also raised concerns about some aspects of the zoning update, including effects of removing parking minimums and allowing corner stores by right.
Bowser opposes allowing accessory dwellings in existing detached garages. She said the reason is because people who live in them will want to enlarge them. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning pointed out, however, that under the proposed rules enlarging an exterior ADU will indeed require a special exception.
Bowser responded that she still thinks the Board of Zoning Adjustment will bias its decisions toward allowing people to expand ADUs once created, and therefore she still wants to have a longer process with hearings to create an external ADU in the first place.
Of course, no discussion of the zoning update would be complete without Linda Schmitt. In her vehement testimony, she said that the Office of Planning is trying to “remake every ward and every neighborhood,” that her organization is not racist, and that a public input process that involves 700 people plus using Twitter isn’t enough.
You can watch the entire hearing here.