DC has a small, hyperlocal form of government called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Commissioners, who are elected by their neighbors, help with neighborhood problems and weigh in on how places should (or shouldn’t) change, but can’t actually make laws or regulations. Still, despite having little formal power, ANCs have a lot of influence over how the District does or doesn’t change.
What are Advisory Neighborhood Commissions?
Each Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) represents a region in each of DC’s eight Wards. Within each ANC, commissioners are elected to two-year terms to represent Single Member Districts (SMDs) of approximately 2000 residents. A commission can have anywhere from two SMDs (which would mean two commissioners) to twelve. ANCs are identified by their ward and a letter.
For example, I’m a commissioner in 7D, which is Ward 7’s fourth (hence the letter D) ANC. I represent Single Member District 07, which covers neighborhoods called Paradise and Parkside. Some commissions represent a single community, such as 2B, which is the Dupont Circle ANC, whereas others, like my own, represent a number of neighborhoods.
Commissioners come from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like myself, are relative newcomers recruited by community leaders to serve their neighborhood while others have lived in their neighborhoods their whole lives. Even within a single ANC, commissioners can be very diverse; my own commission includes a teacher, a lawyer, government contractors, and a lifelong community advocate.
On the map below, the yellow lines represent DC’s wards, the thick red lines represent the ANCs within them, and the thin red lines represent the SMDs that make up each ANC.
A map of DC’s Wards and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Ward 7 ANCs are tinted blue, ANC 7D is green, and Single Member District 07 is highlighted in red. Map by the author. Data from DC Open Data.
ANCs weigh in on many of the decisions that the District’s governing bodies make. For example, many ANCs wrote letters to the Office of Planning with comments or proposed amendments for the zoning code re-write, and most restaurants work out agreements with the ANCs on things like when they’ll be open and whether they can play live music in exchange for ANC support of their liquor license applications. Commissioners can also offer resolutions and testify before the DC Council.
In practice, beyond laws about liquor licenses or zoning, government agencies consult ANCs as a way to get community buy-in for a project. For example, the District Department of Transportation often presents new plans to the public at ANC meetings, giving the community a chance to weigh in and provide feedback. Recently, ANC 6B worked with DDOT to get a pedestrian crosswalk on 11th Street SE between I and M Streets, and ANC 2B urged DDOT to reopen a bike lane at 15th and L which is closed due to construction.
Also, developers pitching new projects often seek ANC approval before going before the Zoning Commission or Board of Zoning Adjustment, as ANCs get a say with these agencies (more on that below…). The result of these interactions is often a contract between a developer and the neighborhood, called a Community Benefits Agreement.
Commissions can also provide avenues for greater community involvement and input by establishing committees that focus on certain issues, like transportation or planning and zoning.
What kind of authority do ANCs have?
The type of authority that ANCs have can vary. In some cases, they have legal standing. ANCs are automatically granted “party status” before the Zoning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Alcohol License Review Board for new businesses and developments in their communities. Party status gives commissions easier access to information, notifications about upcoming hearings, and the right to cross examine participants.
Bars in DC often work with ANCs on things like hours of operation in exchange for the ANC’s endorsement. Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.
In other areas, commissions can only make recommendations that city agencies have to give “great weight” to when making decisions. Great weight requires a government agency to respond, in writing, to concerns raised by a commission. While great weight demands that agencies explain their course of action, it doesn’t actually require an agency to change its course of action.
Common critiques and shortcomings of the ANC system
ANC commissioners have complained that they are not given satisfactory explanations when agencies don’t follow their recommendations; some commissioners say it’s not uncommon for agency contacts to flat-out ignore them. Commissions have very few legal options to compel an agency to respond to their requests.
As a result, much of a commissioner’s power is informal, coming from relationships built with government agencies, DC Council members, and the mayor’s office. A motivated and skilled commissioner can draw district government attention to a neighborhood and even motivate agencies to bring resources to bear to solve a problem.
However, ANCs also reflect many of the inequalities and inequities of life in DC. Some commissions benefit from well-educated, well-connected commissioners who can afford to take days off work to testify at DC Council hearings, lobby agencies for action, and develop an in-depth understanding of how policy issues impact their community. Less wealthy communities do not necessarily have the privileges of as spare time and plenty of social capital. This places less affluent communities at a disadvantage when negotiating with developers or engaging with governmental agencies.
Commissions are also somewhat under-resourced. At most, a commission can afford to hire one part-time staff member, who usually acts as an office manager and assists commissioners with logistics, and supporting commissioners as they address concerns raised by the community.
In some cases, commissions have been accused of simply holding up any possible neighborhood change. For example, commissions have often devoted considerable time internally negotiating relatively minor adjustments projects. For example a commission can delay new development projects for months if not years. Such delays can be frustrating in a city like DC with a rapidly growing population and rapidly growing rents.
But ANCs can also positively weigh in on big neighborhood or citywide controversies by being thoughtful instead of knee-jerk. For the Hine project in ANC 6B, where a former junior high school is turning into a mixed-use development, the commission put together a task force that weighed the various interests really well and advocated for improvements instead of simply saying “no.” Another example of 6B actively engaging is that with the zoning update, the commission studied and made smart suggestions while being supportive overall.
At the end of the day, ANCs matter
The fact that ANCs don’t have formal power, plus that they can differ so much across the District, has led to some debates about the system’s value. Some say ANCs should gain legislative powers and become a house of representatives for the District. Others say the whole system
No matter what you may think about these commissions, they do have influence over whether and how our neighborhoods will change and grow. Their importance in what gets built and what kinds of businesses can operate in the area means that they have influence in the community.
District residents should pay attention to what their ANC commissioners are saying in their name. At the end of the day, ANCs are supposed to represent the community’s interests but they can only do that if the community pays attention to what they are doing. You’ve got a chance to vote for your ANC commissioner this fall. Want to read and evaluate your candidates? Read candidate responses to Greater Greater Washington’s ANC questionnaire here and learn where your commissioners (or potential commissioners) stand on important issues.