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Newly Introduced Comprehensive Plan Amendments Aim To Combat Development Appeals

The overarching document guiding D.C.'s development, the Comprehensive Plan, is undergoing its first revision since 2011, and proposed changes could have major implications for the development approval process, which in recent years has been held up by an unprecedented number of court appeals.

An aerial view of Washington, D.C., taken in 2012

Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration introduced its first set of amendments to the D.C. Council, focusing in large part on clearing up ambiguous language that has led courts to block projects and reaffirming the Zoning Commission's authority to add density in exchange for public benefits. 

After calling for the public to propose amendments and receiving more than 3,000 — well above the 200 it received in 2011 — the Office of Planning decided to unveil its amended Comprehensive Plan in pieces. The first piece, introduced Tuesday with legislation to the council, is the 60-page framework element.

The framework provides the foundation for the rest of the plan by outlining demographic changes and growth forecasts, laying out 36 guiding principles, and defining the land-use categories in the maps that guide zoning and density across the city.

The proposed amendments, reviewed by Bisnow ahead of their introduction, aim to clarify the descriptions of these land-use categories, which the D.C. Court of Appeals has seized on to vacate the Zoning Commission approvals for two developments, the $720M McMillan project and a mixed-use building at 901 Monroe St. NE

Those two decisions — the first times the court has vacated Zoning Commission approvals since 1995 — have unleashed a torrent of new appeals from activists. Sixty-two zoning appeals have been filed since the start of 2013, the first year 901 Monroe was overturned (it has been blocked two more times since), compared with 28 appeals filed between 2000 and 2012. 

The surge in appeals has caused some developers to shy away from the planned-unit development process, which allows them to add density in exchange for providing public benefits like affordable housing and open space. Developers have said they want the District to make the PUD process more clear to avoid these appeals, and housing advocates have similarly called for the Comprehensive Plan amendments to clarify and improve the PUD process. 

Attempting to satisfy these concerns, the Office of Planning added an entirely new section to the framework, titled "Zoning and the Comprehensive Plan," which emphasizes that the Zoning Commission has the authority to weigh different sections of the plan in its decisions and can permit greater height or density through the PUD process. 

“The court cases made us understand and look at the narrative we were saying, and in some instances, the narrative is there in the policy and the process. But in amending the Comprehensive Plan, we want to make sure that narrative was included,” Director of Planning Eric Shaw told Bisnow. "We know there are still a lot of outstanding court cases, but this is one of those moments as we are amending this we thought this was important to include.”

The District's Future Land Use Map sets guidelines for the level of density throughout the city.

With its amendments, the Office of Planning sought to make clear that the descriptions of land-use categories in the plan's Future Land Use Map should serve as general guidelines rather than strict rules, as the court has interpreted them in some cases. The amendments emphasize that the Zoning Commission has the authority to provide greater density than is described in the land-use categories through the PUD process.

It also makes clear that some sections of a development may exceed the scale described in the land-use category as long as the overall site is consistent with the plan, addressing an issue opponents cited in the McMillan appeal.  

To prevent the court from interpreting these land-use categories too strictly, the Office of Planning removed references to the number of stories buildings in the residential categories typically have. For commercial categories, it replaced the number of stories with building heights, though each definition clarifies that buildings may be taller as part of a PUD. 

"We affirmed there is some flexibility in how we think about density and height, in a way that's not inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, to affirm why we would do that to further the idea of public benefits," Shaw said.

D.C. Director of Planning Eric Shaw

The District has grown significantly faster than projected when the Comprehensive Plan was first adopted in 2006. Its 2016 population of 681,000 had increased 19.5% over 2006 levels. The Comprehensive Plan has been criticized for forcing that growth into lower-income areas while discouraging new development and housing growth in affluent areas.  

Some of the plan's amendments appear intended to change that perception. The proposed changes to the land-use definitions add language that encourages development in wealthier, more established neighborhoods. 

In the definition of "Neighborhood Conservation Areas," a category on the Generalized Policy Map, it changed the guiding philosophy of the areas from "conserve and enhance established neighborhoods," to "encourage the conservation and enhancement of existing neighborhood character, but not to preclude new development, redevelopment or alteration." 

“We wanted to make it clear that neighborhoods are dynamic, and there are opportunities to grow,” Shaw said.  

The proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan framework also include new sections on resilience, aiming to better prepare the city for natural disasters, and on capital investment, outlining priorities for maintaining public facilities and infrastructure. 

The Office of Planning expects to introduce the amendments for the remainder of the plan later this year. The D.C. Council will hold public hearings and can make its own changes before voting to pass the amended Comprehensive Plan.