Third Church: Decide another day
Acting as the Mayor's Agent in deciding whether to allow Third Chuch to raze their Brutalist building, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning granted a request by the DC Preservation League to "continue" the hearing in a month. The Preservation League just received Third Church's financial information on Friday, and argued that they hadn't had sufficient time to prepare a rebuttal or find expert witnesses. The financial hardship of maintaining the current church is one of Third Church's main arguments. After conferring privately with the attorneys, Tregoning announced she had reached a "reluctant agreement" to resume on November 25th, two days before Thanksgiving.
Harriet Tregoning and HPRB Chairman Tersh Boasberg at a January 2008 DCCA meeting. Photo by David Alpert.
GGW will be out of town then, and is disappointed that Harriet Tregoning afterward expressed her wish not to broadcast the hearing, as the Zoning Commission, Board of Zoning Adjustment, and HPRB now do along with the DC Council. DC has many public hearings, and there's no reason that "public" ought to be restricted to only those citizens with time to actually travel to a hearing; everyone interested in seeing our government at work should have the opportunity to do so.
Tregoning's Office of Planning does a great job of making policy, and unlike some agencies (such as DDOT), its decisionmaking follows a clear process with ample chance for public participation. It's too bad she doesn't wish to expand public accessibility to this hearing. Tregoning did point out to me the technical obstacles of broadcasting, since the rooms at 801 North Capitol are not equipped for the job, but if they can't use the Zoning and HPRB hearing room at 441 4th Street, a portable setup, even to record and then post after the fact, isn't such a technical hurdle in the modern day.
At this morning's session, Tregoning also heard and ruled on other motions. Without justification or comment, she denied DCPL's motion that she recuse herself because of a conflict of interest. As Richard Layman covered last night, they argued that since the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, of which she is part, already weighed in against landmarking, an impartial judge rather than a political appointee ought to hear the case. Typically, an administrative law judge, not Tregoning, presides even though Tregoning is the official Mayor's Agent. Tregoning denied this motion, saying that the final written opinion would explain her reasons.
DCPL's attorney, Tom Papson, also moved to dismiss the church's "special merit" claim. A landmark can be demolished to construct a project of special merit, but the church has never shown any plans for what they wish to construct. The church said that they won't be presenting a special merit argument and withdrew this portion of their application. DCPL had also moved to dismiss the religious liberty claim by the church, who argue that "being forced to maintain a place of worship" that doesn't fit with their beliefs violates federal RFRA and RLUIPA statutes. Papson argued that, just as HPRB decided it doesn't have the authority to decide a constitutional quesiton, neither does the Mayor's Agent. The Church's attorney, Keyes, countered that in a previous case about the Frasier Mansion, the Mayor's Agent determined federal religious freedom didn't apply to the placement of a cross. Therefore, said Keyes, it's proper for the Mayor's Agent to consider religious liberty. Tregoning decided to allow the applicant to provide testimony and "make a record" on the subject before she decides whether to dismiss that claim.
The hearing had its share of procedural quibbling, common to legal proceedings. Third Church's attorney moved to deny party status to DCPL and the Committee of 100 because they hadn't filed the proper letters designating their attorneys (Tregoning denied the motion). Papson asked for more documents about the church's financial agreements with developer ICG Properties, to whom they sold the land (Tregoning agreed to ask for specific documents, but resisted turning the request into a "fishing expedition").
The hearing on the 25th will last as long as it takes to hear the case. That'll probably be quite a while, since the church expects to need 90 minutes to present their case and interview their witnesses, DCPL and the Committee of 100 estimated that they need two hours, and those times don't include cross-examination or rebuttals. Plus, public agencies, affected ANCs (in this case, that's Dupont's ANC 2B), and members of the public are all allowed to comment as well. It'll be a long night, but not for me; I'll interview interested people from the church, the preservation commmunity, and the ANC to bring you the latest news on this fascinating, educational, and quite intricate saga.
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