Carriage houses in Naylor Court. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Remember DC’s zoning update? The source of massive public debate last year, and public hearings way back in 2008? It’s still slowly grinding along, but the long delays even on less controversial provisions are making life difficult for actual homeowners today.

A friend and her husband recently bought a DC row house for them and their two children. The row house has 2 stories plus a basement. In the rear is a 2-story carriage house, which a previous owner renovated into a separate apartment. However, it doesn’t have the permits to be a legal unit.

This friend would like to rent out the carriage house. Nothing would change on the outside of the building. The adjacent houses also have garages or carriage houses on this alley, and the only windows face the alley or face the main property.

Unfortunately, DC’s zoning laws make this difficult. 

This house is in an R-4 zone, which encompasses many of the moderate density row house neighborhoods like Shaw, Bloomingdale, Petworth, Capitol Hill, and Trinidad. (It’s the purple in the large map about halfway down this post). In an R-4, it’s totally legal to make a house into 2 units, as long as both are inside the main building. But to use an existing accessory building like a garage requires a variance.

As we discussed in the context of theaters in residential zones on Friday, a variance is actually very difficult to get. There has to be some “exceptional” condition of the property. Sometimes DC’s Board of Zoning Adjustment stretches pretty far to find exceptional conditions when neighbors don’t object, but they can’t always; in one case, a property owner wanted to build a garage on the alley to match the garages for every other property on the same alley. Nobody objected, but the board couldn’t find an “exceptional” condition because that lot was exactly the same as every other lot (only without a garage).

This friend can try to get a variance, which would mean hiring zoning lawyers and a process lasting the better part of a year. Or, she and her husband can substantially renovate the house to make the basement a separate unit instead, at great expense. They might be able to maneuver around the zoning laws by somehow connecting the carriage house to the main house with a walkway, so it no longer counts as a separate building.

Or, instead of any of these undesirable and expensive approaches, DC could just pass its zoning update already. One of the proposals for row house areas would allow the legal 2nd unit to go in an accessory building, like a garage. The Zoning Commission, the federal-local hybrid board that decides the zoning in DC, decided on this and other recommendations on June 8, 2009, so we’ve just passed the 4-year anniversary of when they actually ruled on these proposals.

At the time, the plan was for the Office of Planning (OP) to go and write detailed text based on the Zoning Commission’s guidance. The head of the project, Travis Parker, then got a job running a planning department in Colorado, and the team lost another member, Michael Guilioni, slowing the whole process. Opponents of the more controversial pieces of the update then asked for more delays, more public meetings, more task force meetings, and more process.

It’s time to move forward on the zoning update. OP deputy director Jennifer Steingasser told the Dupont Circle ANC that they’ve recently shown the latest set of drafts to their task force, a group of residents from stakeholder groups and various wards. After that, it’s time to bring the drafts to the Zoning Commission for the final phase: a formal “setdown” and formal hearings where residents can make their case for or against the proposals.

Even small tweaks that will fix pervasive problems with the zoning code have been stuck in limbo for over 5 years because this process is taking so long. It’s time to bring the best draft to the Zoning Commission, have hearings, and approve the zoning update so that homeowners like these, and many others around the city, don’t have to keep waiting to better enjoy and afford their properties.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.