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D.C. Council Approves Comprehensive Plan Amendments, But Planning Director Concerned With Some Changes

The ongoing process to revise the long-term plan guiding D.C.’s development took a long-awaited step forward Tuesday.  

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

The D.C. Council voted in its final legislative meeting of the session to pass the initial set of amendments to the Comprehensive Plan on first vote, setting the bill up for a final vote in September. But some disagreements are beginning to emerge between the legislative body and Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration. 

Bowser's Office of Planning in January 2018 introduced proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan's Framework Element, an introductory section of the plan that sets guiding principles and defines land-use categories. The council held a 13-hour hearing in March 2018 during which developers and some advocates spoke in favor of the amendments and some neighborhood groups and activists spoke in opposition. 

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson then introduced his own set of amendments last week. The council did not take public testimony on his changes at Tuesday's meeting, but council members commented on the proposed amendments and made their own additional suggestions, some of which Mendelson said he would work on incorporating ahead of the final vote.

"Proposed amendments can be refined over the summer," Mendelson said during the meeting. "I hope I demonstrated an openness to considering suggested amendments and seeing how we can fit them in."

Mendelson’s draft maintained some of the changes the Office of Planning proposed but altered some key portions relating to affordable housing, neighborhood-level plans and the rezoning process developers use to increase density in exchange for community benefits.

Director of Planning Andrew Trueblood Monday submitted a letter to Mendelson, which his office shared with Bisnow, outlining concerns he has with the chairman's proposed amendments. He told Bisnow in an interview Tuesday he thinks the chairman went too far in changing the Office of Planning's amendments.

“The intention is the mayor submits a document and the council can mark it up, but I don’t think the intention was to have this level of review,” Trueblood said. “The fact that the council threw out our markup and did their own, while we ended up in a similar place, is a bit concerning. It’s certainly their prerogative, but it’s not good planning."  

Trueblood’s two main areas of concern, both of which he said could negatively impact the city’s development, center around Small Area Plans and the Planned-Unit Development process.  

The Office of Planning’s proposed changes had aimed to clear up language around the PUD process that the D.C. Court of Appeals has seized on to vacate the approval of multiple developments in recent years. The court decisions have stalled some large-scale developments for several years and have led to a raft of additional appeals that have delayed dozens of projects.

The issue has led some developers to shy away from the PUD process, instead building by-right projects that create fewer units of housing and don't offer the same level of community input and public benefits. 

Developers testified in support of the Office of Planning amendments last year because they would help clear up the issues and make the PUD process more viable. But Mendelson's changes added a line that Trueblood said increases the ambiguities around the PUD process and could lead to more litigation.  

“It creates a requirement around PUDs that asks them to look at existing zoning, and the whole point of the PUD is it gives flexibility around existing zoning, so how can you have flexibility and also follow the zoning plan at the same time?” Trueblood said. "It has ambiguities and is unclear.”  

D.C. Planning Director Andrew Trueblood speaking at a 2016 Bisnow event

The proposed changes from the Office of Planning had also aimed to strengthen the power of Small Area Plans, neighborhood-level planning documents that go into greater detail than the Comprehensive Plan and can be passed separately. The proposal would have left the SAP process largely as it stands, with the Office of Planning writing the plans in consultation with neighborhood stakeholders and the council reviewing them with an up or down vote. But the Office of Planning's amendments added language intended to give Small Area Plans greater weight during zoning hearings.  

Mendelson removed much of the proposed language that would have strengthened the Small Area Plans and he has suggested instead submitting neighborhood-level plans as individual Comprehensive Plan amendments. This alternate course would give the D.C. Council the power to amend the plans rather than just pass or reject them.  

"There’s a reason it’s set up this way, that Small Area Plan law is separate from the Comprehensive Plan," Trueblood said. "Giving each council member the chance to mark up a document that has been thoroughly reviewed with the neighborhood we think could introduce challenges in terms of getting a good product and add to the length of time we want for Small Area Plans."  

The chairman’s amendments also emphasized the importance of creating and preserving affordable housing as a top priority for the District. The Office of Planning put forward some of the affordable housing language in an August letter to the council recommending additions to its initial proposal.  

“On page after page we talk about affordable housing,” Mendelson said. “We make it clear affordable housing is a crisis and that crisis needs to be met.”  

The Council Tuesday voted on the first reading of the bill, and it is expected to take it up a second time in September following its summer recess. The Framework Element the current bill addresses is only the first section of the lengthy Comprehensive Plan. The Office of Planning is working on its proposed changes for the remainder of the plan, and Trueblood said it expects to release them later this year.  

“We’re happy it’s moving forward, that’s really critical,” Trueblood said. “It has been 18 months and I’m hoping through this process now we can learn a lot so the next round, even though it will have more content, will be able to move quicker."