DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has announced her intention to introduce a bill to Congress that would, in effect, gut the Old Georgetown Board. Specifically it would eliminate the authority of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) to review development of any District owned property or any privately owned property.
The CFA currently reviews, among other things, all projects on federally owned land, District-owned land, and any privately owned land in Georgetown or land adjacent to important federal properties, like Rock Creek Park. The CFA has sub-delegated its initial review of Georgetown properties to the Old Georgetown Board. So when you have a project in Georgetown, it is first reviewed by OGB, and then it is reviewed by CFA, although this second review is typically (but not always!) a rubber stamp. Once you’ve got approval from the CFA, the city will issue a building permit.
As mentioned above, Norton’s bill would eliminate the CFA’s authority over District-owned land and privately owned land. Since the OGB is just an arm of the CFA, this would mean the OGB would no longer have authority to review these properties either. OGB would be reduced to reviewing Georgetown projects on federal land.
The bill is part of a long list of bills that Norton has announced or introduced to increase the District’s home rule. For instance she has introduced bills to remove the federal representatives on the Zoning Commission, create a locally controlled prosecutor’s office, and eliminate the Congressional review of District laws. The general thrust is that as the District makes its case for statehood, it should also make its case for controlling more of the machinery of its own governance.
Like the other bills, the CFA bill is unlikely to become law. But if it did, it wouldn’t actually represent a gutting of historical preservation in Georgetown. The neighborhood is an historic district under DC law, and all the changes that would normally be reviewed by OGB would simply now be handled by DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). Technically HPRB already has the authority to review Georgetown projects, but it defers to the OGB. (OGB doesn’t have authority for changes to buildings that can’t be seen from the street or public alley. In those cases HPRB’s latent authority takes over and they review it).
The perception among many preservationists is that since the members of HPRB are appointed by the mayor, while the OGB members are appointed by the President, that the HPRB members might be under more local influence. The insinuation of that is that “local” influence means a pro-development mentality. Of course one of the current members of HPRB is Georgetown resident and architect Outerbridge Horsey. If you know Outerbridge, you know he is a fierce advocate for preservation.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the OGB has come under threat. Shortly after the Old Georgetown Act was passed, DC’s Corporation Counsel (the predecessor to DC’s Attorney General) issued an opinion significant reducing the reach of the act. A few years later, the U.S. Attorney General weighed in and restored the full authority.
Maybe Georgetown would be better under the same historic protection regime that covers all the other DC historic districts. But it’s really unlikely that that possibility will ever see the light of day any time soon.