Photo by scsmith4.
Tonight at St. John’s Church at 6:00, the Citizens Association of Georgetown will be hosting an open meeting to discuss proposed changes to zoning rules in Georgetown. It sounds incredibly dry, but it is actually a very interesting topic and should help influence land use policy in Georgetown for decades to come.
The District of Columbia last rewrote its zoning code in 1958. Since that time the local government (which over that time transitioned from a board of commissioners, to an appointed council, and finally to an elected council) has touched up the document in innumerable ways. As a result, it is now a hulking incomprehensible mess.
In 2006, the DC Office of Planning updated another old guiding document: the Comprehensive Plan. This document sets forth the Districts general policies for a wide range of issues. Amending it meant establishing the city’s course for the next century.
Since the comp plan had much to say about land use, it followed that the zoning code should be modernized to incorporate the new policies set forth in the plan. The Office of Planning has been slowly working towards producing that updated code for years now. Last year it finally issued draft new regulations.
Early on, the Citizens Association of Georgetown reached out to the Office of Planning and requested an opportunity to work with the Office of Planning on drafting the rules that would specifically apply to Georgetown. The office was receptive to the request and began working with CAG.
Members of CAG representing ostensibly divergent views worked on the draft. Some were conservative and were nervous about the possibility of increased density, while others (like GM) are card carrying urbanists who welcome increased density. Over many meetings within CAG and with the Office of Planning, a draft “specialized zone” was created for Georgetown.
It is not final, and is subject to input from a wider group than who initially contributed to it. But GM will spend the rest of this post highlighting some of the more important elements.
Commercial in the Neighborhood
One of the driving goals of the zoning rewrite is to allow more neighborhoods to become more like Georgetown. And one of the most important aspects of what makes Georgetown Georgetown is its small stores in the neighborhood like Scheele’s, Sara’s, and Stachowski’s.
But even in Georgetown, many of those stores are legal only because they’re grandfathered in. If Scheele’s closed at 29th and Dumbarton, they couldn’t open up across the street. And if they remained closed too long, the grandfather-clause would expire and no other store could open there.
So the proposed language would allow more stores to open up in the neighborhood, even in places that never hosted a store before.
The reality is that in a neighborhood like Georgetown, there probably isn’t enough of a demand for too many more corner stores, but at least with this change the present level will no longer be reliant on a few grandfathered exceptions.
Another topic near and dear to GM is the topic of accessory dwellings. An accessory dwelling is essentially a separate living unit that has been carved out of a single family home. It can either be an interior accessory dwelling (which most commonly takes the form of a basement apartment) or an exterior accessory dwelling (i.e. a carriage house conversion).
Georgetown is full of basement apartments (or what realtors refer to as “English basements”). But most of them are illegal since the zoning code simply prohibits them in an R-3 zone (which most of Georgetown is).
If the apartment existed in 1958, it is grandfathered in. But the reality is that most of the apartments did not exist in 1958, or if they did, they haven’t been occupied as apartments continuously since then.
This is a bad situation. Landlords don’t register the apartments with the city because they simply can’t. So the apartments never get inspected for safety.
Also, accessory dwellings are a good thing to encourage for several reasons. First, it can be used by residents interested in “aging in place”. Second, it provides more affordable housing for tenants. And third, it provides more affordable housing for the owner, since the rent can help significantly with the mortgage.
Most people agree that the apartments are generally fine and should be allowed to become legal (a “pathway to citizenship” we can call it). So the new regulations will eliminate the prohibition.
The Office of Planning first suggested that the ability to create an accessory dwelling should be “by right”, meaning no zoning approval would be necessary. But the owner would still have to meet several conditions, such as square footage and, more importantly, that the owner actually live in the house.
CAG argued that the best way to ensure that this condition is actually met would be to require the owner to get a “special exception” to build the unit. A special exception is not as easy as a “by right” but it is significantly easier to obtain than a variance.
The idea is that the special exceptions should be granted freely. But through the notice process, the neighbors would be made aware of the change and could alert the Board of Zoning Adjustment that the owner doesn’t actually live there.
These are just two of the issues addressed by the proposed regulations. Additional topics include building height, side lots, set backs and others. GM’s not sure all the topics will be covered tonight, but if any of these issues interest you, come on out!