No matter how you look at it, zoning and historical preservation are touchy issues in Cleveland Park. From firehouse doors to solar panels, each month brings us a new discussion about these issues. This month is no different, as a group of neighbors is voicing concern with us about their neighbors’ request for a “special exception” to the zoning rules at 3011 Ordway St NW.
The request came from property owners seeking to build a non-conforming addition in the back of the property. To do so, they needed to request a special exception to the lot occupancy ratio. Current zoning regulations limit lot occupancy to 40 percent. The new addition to the home would increase the occupancy to 43.5 percent based on the initial filing. Neighbors initially supported the seemingly standard request. The request sailed through the ANC3C meeting (8-0). As the resolution noted, “the proposed addition is
small in scale and does not intrude upon the character, scale and pattern of houses along the street frontage” and “the adjacent neighbors have no objection to the proposed addition, although the ANC has received an objection from a resident on 30th Street whose property is not adjacent to the applicant’s property.”
With just about everyone on the same page, the request plodded towards its hearing date with the BZA. In the interim, the homeowners make various changes to the plans originally submitted. The changes concerned some of the neighbors, including those who originally supported the exception. Three neighbors, one directly adjacent, attempted to submit evidence demonstrating the adverse effect of the proposed addition on them. At issue, among a series of factual errors in the plan is “likelihood of visual intrusion of the proposed addition upon the character and scale and pattern of neighboring homes.” In addition, “Likelihood of impairment of use and enjoyment of neighbors to the north of 3011 Ordway St., NW due to the provisions of the required rear yard and the 15 footwide public alley” (which is actually a 9.5 footwide alley). Despite being presented with evidence that the plans were significantly different, the BZA relied on the ANC and Office of Planning reports, (both of which were written prior to the final plans being submitted by the homeowners) and granted the special exception. ANC Commissioner Leila Afzal told us that she was unaware that changes had been made to the plan that the ANC initially supported.
Now, equally perturbed by the seeming “bait and switch” as the impact of the new plans on their homes, a Petition for Reconsideration has been filed. All of the 30th St. neighbors between Porter St and the alley have voiced concerns over the project. Hopefully, this case will be resolved in a way that satisfies all parties. Despite being slow to raise objections (mostly due to the changing plans), at least two neighbors have expressed to us frustration that no one cares or is listening to their concerns. Similar cases have not ended well for neighbors. In 2010, even with a belatedly retracted recommendation from ANC2F, the BZA denied (and the courts upheld) reconsideration for the Quincy Park Condominium Unit Owners’ Association who were fighting expansion of the Morrison-Clark Hotel.
Setting aside the merits of either side, the most damaging result of this case could be a hardening of attitudes toward zoning that will get in the way of rational improvements to structures in the neighborhood. At the very least, it seems as if improved transparency and communication would be important improvements in the zoning process.