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New D.C. Comp Plan Bill Could 'Open A Pandora's Box' To More Development Appeals

The D.C. Council is nearing a final vote on the first set of amendments to the city's comprehensive plan, but planning officials and advocates are raising concerns around changes that they say could allow more of the appeals that have delayed dozens of developments. 

The D.C. Council during a July 2019 meeting on the Comprehensive Plan amendments

The final vote on amendments to the Framework Element of the Comprehensive Plan, the document that guides the city's development, is scheduled for Tuesday, but Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration still has significant concerns it wants the council to address. 

Director of Planning Andrew Trueblood sent a letter Wednesday to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, which he shared with Bisnow, detailing issues with specific additions the council made to the plan that he said could lead more housing developments to become stuck in court. 

"What we think this language does is it adds to the uncertainty," Trueblood tells Bisnow. "When you have uncertainty, often that can result in more litigation. We are trying to create a Framework Element and a remainder of the Comprehensive Plan that is clearer to avoid uncertainty, ambiguity and unnecessary litigation." 

The revised language Trueblood highlighted in his letter is Section 227.2, which outlines how the Zoning Commission should consider zoning applications, including planned unit developments.

The PUD process, which allows for greater density in exchange for community benefits, has been at the center of the recent surge in court appeals that have delayed and blocked developments that would create thousands of housing units throughout D.C. 

The council's revisions added three new requirements for the Zoning Commission to consider when evaluating PUDs, including if a project is "generally compatible with the physical and visual character of the surrounding neighborhood." 

D.C. Planning Director Andrew Trueblood

Trueblood said this language is unnecessary because the Zoning Commission is already charged with determining whether a project is not inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, which includes considerations of neighborhood character. By adding this language to the framework element, he said it seems to suggest it is of greater importance than other considerations in the comprehensive plan, such as affordable housing. 

In his letter, Trueblood said the council could remove Section 227.2 entirely and it would not have any negative impacts on the process. But if the council is intent on keeping the section, he also recommended revised language that would alleviate his concerns. 

Coalition for Smarter Growth Policy Director Cheryl Cort raised concerns around the same section of the bill, which she described as a "crisis."

"The PUD language in the council version of this bill opens up a Pandora's box for new litigation," Cort said. "This whole exercise was supposed to resolve this issue with the court where thousands of new homes were held up in appeals. This bill does the opposite. It throws us into greater uncertainty."

Cort said she supports the revisions that Trueblood proposed to resolve the issue. She added that the specific language around neighborhood character is reminiscent of past methods of blocking new housing development. 

"It really smacks of exclusionary zoning that has been used in the past to perpetuate housing segregation," Cort said. 

A Mendelson spokesperson tells Bisnow the chairman's office has heard recent concerns from members of the public around language in the bill and is continuing to review the issues ahead of the scheduled vote.  

"The Sept. 17 Council vote is our goal, since we want to keep this process moving along," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "However, our goal is to get the language right, and we have a Monday noon deadline to circulate any changes, which is tight."

Tuesday's scheduled vote represents the second and final vote on the Framework Element, after the council passed it on the first vote in July. Trueblood raised additional concerns at that time, but he said he has worked with the council and some of those issues have been resolved. He said he is confident they will be able to reach an agreement on final language for the bill that the mayor will be able to sign into law. 

Following the passage of the Framework Element, the Office of Planning plans to release its recommendations for the additional 24 elements and two maps that make up the Comprehensive Plan. The Office of Planning introduced the first set of amendments in January 2018, and the council held a contentious hearing on the changes in March 2018 before ultimately pushing the votes to this year. 

Trueblood said he hopes the amended plan will help achieve the mayor's goal of adding 36,000 housing units, including 12,000 affordable units, to the District by 2025. He also thinks recent court decisions, including July's ruling on the McMillan development, represent a positive sign for the future of major proposed developments that face appeals. 

"I think this Framework Element being resolved and the Comprehensive Plan moving forward, as well as the court decisions, mean we're really turning the page regarding PUDs and litigation," Trueblood said. "We're excited to work with the development community to maximize the opportunity to build housing in the city, as well as community benefits."