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D.C. Council Fails To Take Up Comprehensive Plan Amendments, Pushes Issue To 2019

The hundreds of people who testified to the D.C. Council in March on the District's long-term development plan were not enough to sway the council to prioritize the issue and move forward with it this year. 

The D.C. Council's Comprehensive Plan hearing in March 2018 drew hundreds of residents to testify.

The council missed the deadline last week to bring the Comprehensive Plan amendments up for a vote this legislative session, delaying the process that developers and growth advocates hope will help slow the wave of appeals that have delayed thousands of new housing units across the District. 

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the busy agenda of other high-profile legislation made it difficult to move forward on the Comprehensive Plan amendments, but he hopes to do so early next year. 

"I had hoped that we would be able to mark it up and move it out this council period. That will not happen," Mendelson said at a press conference last week. "It's really the crush of business that has prevented us from being able to address the [Comprehensive Plan] framework. But I'm committed, if the measure's in front of us in January, either because it holds over or is reintroduced, to move on it before the budget next year." 

Advocates are not happy that the council pushed the Comprehensive Plan amendment to 2019. Coalition for Smarter Growth Policy Director Cheryl Cort said the group is pushing the council to take up the amendments early next year.

"We are frustrated that it was not moved forward," Cort said. "We would have liked to have this Comprehensive Plan be a higher priority, but we know the council is still engaged, and the chairman has not forgotten about it."

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at Bisnow's Economic and Political Forecast event.

Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration, through the Office of Planning, in January released its first set of amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, a lengthy document that guides land use and development in D.C. The first amendments were focused on the plan's framework section, which lays out guiding principles and defines land-use categories in the maps that guide the city's zoning and density. 

Developers and smart-growth advocates hoped the amendments would help clear up potential contradictions in these land-use categories that the D.C. Court of Appeals has seized on to vacate the Zoning Commission approvals of several D.C. developments in recent years. 

The McMillan Sand Filtration Site, Brookland's 901 Monroe and Southeast D.C.'s Barry Farm are among the projects that have been delayed for years after having their approvals vacated and remain in limbo. At least a dozen other projects have experienced significant delays following a sharp increase in appeals that forced them to go through a lengthy court process. Countless others have aimed to avoid appeals by staying away from the planned-unit development process, which allows for greater density in exchange for community benefits.

"The PUD process is being crippled by all the meritless appeals," Cort said. "We used to get some appeals, which makes sense, but now pretty much everything is being appealed and it's crippling our ability to redevelop larger affordable housing sites." 

The D.C. Council held a hearing on the amendments in March that lasted over 13 hours and had 273 people signed up to testify. Many top D.C. developers, including JBG Smith, EYA, Trammell Crow, MRP Realty, MidCity Development and Menkiti Group testified in support of the amendments. Advocates like Cort also testified in favor of the amendments, while other anti-development activists like Chris Otten testified in opposition to the changes. 

D.C. Planning Director Andrew Trueblood

The Office of Planning in August wrote a letter to Mendelson suggesting additional changes to the amendments. It proposed adding a section on housing costs to prioritize the issue of affordability and address one of the most frequent comments it received. Mendelson in September told the Washington Business Journal he would include the affordable housing provisions, mark up the bill and bring it up for a vote. 

The council voted on several pieces of contentious legislation this fall, including regulations on short-term rentals like Airbnb, sports betting, campaign finance reform and other high-profile issues. The time spent on those topics prevented the council from moving forward with the Comprehensive Plan this year, Mendelson said. 

The effort to move forward with the Comprehensive Plan amendment process will be shepherded by a new planning director. Bowser announced Nov. 8 that Andrew Trueblood, previously chief of staff to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, would take over as director of planning. The announcement did not give a reason for former Planning Director Eric Shaw's departure. 

“We continue to encourage the D.C. Council to pass the Framework Element of the Comprehensive Plan expeditiously," Trueblood said in a statement provided to Bisnow. "We are working with Council members and stakeholders to ensure it is taken up and passed early in the next Council session, to prepare the way for the remaining elements of the Comprehensive Plan.”