DC’s local elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are entitled to “great weight” from agencies on whose decisions the ANC has commented. But what does “great weight” mean, and are the ANCs getting the consideration they deserve? The Dupont Circle ANC has been asking this question frequently of late as the HPRB has disagreed with nearly all of their recent recommendations, such as on the Third Church landmarking or the height of the 14th and U project.
If the ANC wants to receive great weight, they should start by making sure great weight goes into their decisions. With the Dupont Circle ANC, that has sometimes been the case, and other times not at all. At last November’s meeting, for example, the ANC spent about an hour and a half on the contentions Third Church landmarking issue, but only about ten minutes on the 14th and U project. And last night, they voted to endorse a controversial piece of legislation exempting churches from some historic preservation, a proposal that raises complex legal issues, without placing it on the agenda or letting members of the audience speak.
In November, neighbors had the opportunity to speak their minds on the church issue, and representatives from the preservation groups and the Historic Preservation Office attended (though they didn’t choose to give much comment). On the other hand, the ANC conducted a hasty hearing with few public comments on before quickly moving to condemn the 14th and U project. In subsequent meetings, the debate was similarly brief.
Many commissioners have never spoken up about the project at all, yet they have voted unanimously time after time to support the ANC’s resolution. Do they really agree, or simply not care? At least one commissioner privately told me that he didn’t object to the project, less than an hour after he had voted for a resolution criticizing it.
Last night, a representative from Third Church made a plea for the ANC to endorse Jack Evans’ legislation concerning churches and historic preservation, a topic that hadn’t appeared on the agenda. My initial reaction to the proposal was strongly negative, because there are many churches more worthy of preservation that should remain protected by the law, and I don’t feel churches should be treated differently than other buildings. Proponents argued that this simply implements the federal RLUIPA law.
What’s right? I’m not yet sure, and plan to do some investigating. But the ANC wasn’t sure either. There was no legal testimony about the law. There wasn’t even a chance for anyone in the audience to speak up. The ANC simply heard the argument of the church representative, debated briefly among themselves, asked Michelle Molotsky of Jack Evans’ office to comment (she said the legislation had been withdrawn, but couldn’t comment much further) and moved quickly to unanimously vote for a resolution endorsing the legislation.
When I asked several Commissioners about the vote afterward, they admitted having little to no knowledge of the issue. Meanwhile, Commissioner William Hewitt had done considerable research on brick versus concrete concerning the 17th Street Streetscape. Why isn’t every resolution due the same level of education before the Commissioners ask for great weight?
When the ANC seems to give less thoughtful consideration to an issue, it becomes difficult to argue that their resolutions ought to be taken more seriously by the relevant government agencies than letters from ordinary citizens. After all, when ordinary citizens write in, most likely they have at least given some lengthy thought to the matter. When the ANC does so, it may be that one commissioner has a strong opinion and the other eight haven’t thought about it at all.