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False, alarmist flyer agitates Chevy Chase on zoning update

Did you know that DC's zoning rewrite will change residential streets in low-density neighborhoods into dense commercial ones? Encourage the building of mega-mansions close to lot lines on all sides? Bring a fraternity house next door to your home?

Photo by Leo Reynolds on Flickr.

If you didn't know that, congratulations! You are well informed. The zoning rewrite will not do any of this.

However, a flyer being distributed in Chevy Chase is trying to alarm residents with a combination of outright falsehoods and misleading spin.

It begins:

The city Planning Office (OP) is completely rewriting the city's zoning codes. Their task morphed from simply making the code more "user friendly" to fundamentally altering neighborhoods across the city through dramatic zoning changes.

SPECIFIC AREAS OF CONCERN. We identified four major areas of concern to Chevy Chase. Each is explained below:

The hysteria goes beyond the excessive capitalization. Each of these 4 items, and the preamble, is false.

Very little will change in Chevy Chase

The zoning update will not "fundamentally change" Chevy Chase. Almost all its land is zoned for low-density residential development. OP has made it absolutely clear that "transit zones" will not apply to the low density residential areas at all, even when they are near transit. That means that single-family housing, even if it's just a few hundred feet from a Metro station, won't change.

The zoning update will allow a few limited "corner" stores in residential areas, but these also won't apply to the low-density areas like Chevy Chase. No homes can "change into business" units in the neighborhood.

The Office of Planning has bent over backward to ensure that very little will change in single-family home neighborhoods like this. Some think they should have been more aggressive in removing regulations which so severely limit what a homeowner can do with his or her property, but they chose a more conservative path. That hasn't stopped charges that they are plotting wholesale destruction of neighborhoods.

Furthermore, the zoning update has been going on for over 4 years. OP has had hundreds of public meetings and offered to meet with any organization that wishes it. They return phone calls promptly and very patiently explain complex concepts. It is laughable to suggest that there has been "no transparency" or a "compressed schedule."

OP has posted documents from each phase online. The current draft chapters are available to anyone, even though it's not even a finalized draft for official public comment. If all of this is compressed, what would not be a compressed schedule? What is enough "transparency"?

Flyer's facts are simply wrong

The flyer claims that OP is reducing rear setbacks from 25 to 20 feet, but according to Dan Emerine of the Office of Planning, that is not true at all. The flyer says that side setbacks can decline from 8 to 5 feet without mentioning that anyone building with a 5-foot setback on one side has to leave 10 feet on the opposite side, for lots at the minimum allowed width.

Houses in single-family neighborhoods like Chevy Chase are constrained more by the lot occupancy, which limits the percentage of land a house can cover, than the side setbacks. Those lot occupancy limits aren't changing, meaning that houses can't cover any more footprint. Property owners will just have a very tiny bit more flexibility in where their houses sit on the lot.

It says that "'non-profit and institutional uses,' ... including fraternity houses, 'service organizations' and a variety of non-profits" can locate in residential houses. Emerine said more permissive rules for some institutional uses were part of an early draft shown to the Task Force, but the current plan is to leave the regulations for institutional uses as restrictive or more so than today.

Also, fraternity houses definitely don't qualify under the definition of institutional or service organizations. The misunderstanding stems from an erroneous chart that went out to a few people, Emerine noted. OP corrected the chart, but the fear stuck.

The flyer says,

The "transit" streets would see blocks of houses replaced "as a matter of right" by commercial activity or more dense residences (think multi-family). These changes could occur not only on Military, for example, but on any street within 500 feet of it. Streets like Chevy Chase Parkway, Nevada Ave, 32nd Steret, 27th Street, etc.—a two block swath outward from the transit street.
Actually, no. This sounds like something that came out of a game of "telephone" where people tried to explain the zoning update to one another. One person noted that there will be transit streets; another mentioned some sort of 500-foot radius around the streets; and the author concludes that any residential property within 500 feet can suddenly house large apartment buildings.

It can't. A transit line could affect commercial areas or multi-family residential areas within 500 feet, but not single-family residential areas. Some people in DC think it should, but OP doesn't agree.

The rewrite will indeed make some changes to the code, though in places like Chevy Chase they are very minor. Accessory dwellings like garage apartments will become legal. A building 40 feet tall, as zoning allows today, could hold 4 ten-foot stories instead of just 3 taller stories.

Residents should indeed learn about and understand the changes in the zoning update, and make up their own minds. But they should form conclusions based on the truth, not distortions that prey on people's fears.

Alarmism doesn't help solve real problems

People in Chevy Chase have real concerns that nobody should dismiss. Many dislike teardowns and "McMansions" replacing historic homes. But the changes in the zoning update will have little effect. Would anyone replace a building only to move it laterally by a few feet? How many property owners who don't want to tear down and rebuild their entire house today, suddenly would once they can rent out a garage apartment? Very, very few, if any.

At a recent meeting of the Federation of Citizens' Associations to discuss the issue, several people asked whether the zoning code would allow certain types of changes to properties—but the current code already allows those changes.

McMansions are legal under current zoning. Anyone can tear down their home in Chevy Chase; the neighborhood overwhelmingly rejected a historic district that would have prevented that.

Chevy Chase residents worried about certain types of building should advocate for zoning changes which actually address their concerns rather than just taking a knee-jerk position of opposing the zoning update. OP has added some restrictions in the zoning code: Geoff Hatchard and I pushed for limits on locating parking in front of commercial buildings, and OP even agreed to accelerate that provision.

Unfortunately, instead of trying to work with OP to use zoning to solve the neighborhood's problems, a number of people have decided to simply oppose the entire endeavor and refuse to speak with OP staff to separate truth from fiction. Residents of Chevy Chase should look for real information, not agitprop.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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David, I've heard it will AND I've heard it won't. But I haven't seen any published regs which allow me to know who to believe. Additionally, the process for writing these regs has been more or less a dog and poney show (i.e., not allowing for real community input). Given the lack of real proposed language to look at AND the lack of an open process for real community participation, don't you think people DO have a reason to be alarmed? I am.

by Lance on Apr 19, 2012 12:40 pm • linkreport

Ironically, from the addresses on the people who created this flier, they don't live anywhere close to any of the issues that they are raising their dander over.

by William on Apr 19, 2012 12:55 pm • linkreport

On a related note, this week's Northwest Current has a letter to the editor complaining about the zoning rewrite with similar concerns, and that it will force a more urban environment on neighborhoods.

The real kicker is that the author says these "large government" changes have her considering a switch to the tea party.

by ah on Apr 19, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

You can't take anyone seriously who uses that "fancy writing" font on the last page of that flyer.

That said, did you call them for comment, Dave? Their contact info is right there.

by JustMe on Apr 19, 2012 2:09 pm • linkreport

The HD was not overwhelmingly rejected. Only 1/3 or residents objected to it. 1/2 the residents who received "ballots" didn't even respond. No one knows whether they were for or against.

by crin on Apr 19, 2012 2:10 pm • linkreport

Lance maybe you haven't seen them because you haven't looked. If only OP published all the draft regs on some website with a pretty self evident title...oh wait, they do!

The proposed regs are all there for your review. (although the links to the docs appear to need to be updated). As for community input, I can say that in my neighborhood OP is working very closely with residents to develop compromise regs. Maybe you should acrually do a little research if you're so alarmed

by TM on Apr 19, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

A corner store in Chevy Chase!? He'en forefend that they should build another Broad Branch Market and attract all of those Hawthorne street toughs.

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 19, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

David, not all of the information you provided is accurate. But I compliment you on trying to respond to concerns being raised in neighborhoods. There are several issues that are causing the alarm in some neighborhoods and one is that the OP website displaying the draft zoning code has not been available for a month. Perhaps it is back up today but as of Tuesday it was still down.

The introduction of corner stores into row house neighborhoods is written in the draft new code as not limited to corners or to lots on the block that have houses formerly built and used as retail stores or markets. Apparently it was OP's intention to limit the locations and OP has said it will change the draft.

Rear yard setbacks in Chevy Chase and similar neighborhoods are not proposed to change. Side setbacks are proposed to change. In Chevy Chase, which is mostly detached houses, an owner could build an addition or a new house with one side yard at 5 feet. There is a formula for determining the other side yard, but if the front of your lot is 30 ft., as some are in Chevy Chase, your side yards have to total 9 ft. Since no side yard can be less than 5 ft without a waiver from the BZA the other side yard would also have to be at least 5 ft. If your front is 50 ft wide, as new lots would have to be in Chevy Chase, the total would have to be 15 feet and owner can split it up however he wants as long as neither are less than 5 ft. What is important to remember is that many of our older neighborhoods do not have regulation lot sizes and many lot widths are less than required if a new lot were being created. Corner lots need only have 5 ft side yards no matter the length of the lot width.

The new side yard provision could result in more building into the side yards even though the total allowable amount of building on the lot won't change. That could change the look of the block from the street and it could move houses closer to their neighbors.

The proposed change from the list of a dozen professions allowed in residential neighborhoods to broad categories with only definitions and a few conditions to determine what could locate in a neighborhood is what gave rise to the institution confusion. The allowance for institutional establishments like non-profits and private clubs to use a house in any neighborhood was very disturbing. It was proposed over a year ago and there have been concerns raised ever since. Recently OP provided the task force with a very long list of the type of establishments that would meet the definition of each category. Under institutional frat houses were listed. There was alarm expressed by residents at one forum and at a subsequent rezoning task force meeting we expressed almost unanimous concern about the appropriateness of losing housing to non-profits in residential areas. To its credit, OP dropped the institutional category proposal by the next task force meeting.

Regarding using space in your home for a rental apartment that is being proposed. Currently, an owner needs a special exception, but that would not be required under new code. The proposal that is getting more attention is the proposed allowance to transform your garage, which can be built on the property line if located in the rear yard, into an apartment with no review. The garage or carriage house could be expanded from 450 square feet, the maximum allowed now, to 900 square feet and the height could go from 15 ft, currently the max, to 22 ft. OP points out that owners can currently raise the garage roof to 20 ft if a domestic (not my term) would be using the space. Renting the space is currently prohibited in neighborhoods like Chevy Chase. Residents at another recent forum thought this was a very significant change since few people have live-in "domestics" but many might take advantage of renting out a potential 1800 square foot apartment. Its true that the garage plus the house can't exceed 40% of the lot without a waiver from the BZA, but as you point out many Chevy Chase lots are not close to using 40% of their lots.

The introduction of a list of categories like office, service, arts design & creation as allowable businesses run by the resident is getting some attention. The amount of space that could be used is limited to 25% of the house area, not including the garage or basement and there are some other conditions, incluidng number of employees. Among the concerns that have been expressed at the recent forums is that some professions might have few or no affects on neighbors but others could introduce substantial affects but neighbors won't be able to stop those professions.

Many of us have been involved with the rezoning process since it began over 4 years ago. We have been attending many meetings and testifying at the Zoning Commission and we continue to raise issues with OP and attempt to persuade OP to make changes that we believe would not work well in neighborhoods and in fact could have negative affects on the quality of life. It would be very helpful if more people advocated for heights that represent the predominate heights in the neighborhood, the predominate setback of houses from the street, and the existing pattern of side yards as the Comp Plan recommends.

What is clear however is that many people, in fact most, have not been aware that this process was occurring or how they could become involved. Its true that ANCs have received notices of hearings on rezoning topics at the Zoning Commission, but as an ANC commissioner I can tell you that without more outreach most ANCs would not use a ZC notice as a clarion call to get involved.

The outreach that is being conducted now is very important. Rather than arguing that people shouldn't raise concerns or that a good reading of the 500+ page draft (to date) will quell your fears, I think we should acknowledge that a one size fits all zoning code is perhaps not appropriate for DC and that some neighborhoods will welcome some changes and others will not. We have a small city and we should be able to preserve what is good about our neighborhoods and open up new opportunities if that is what residents want.

by Nancy on Apr 19, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

Nancy, can we get a confirmation that you are one Nancy McWood of ANC3C and the Committee of 100?

by Dizzy on Apr 19, 2012 8:12 pm • linkreport

I meant MacWood. My apologies.

by Dizzy on Apr 19, 2012 8:13 pm • linkreport

@Nancy, Thanks for explaining what it is we have to fear ... or at least 'some' of what we have to fear. I think you're right in noting that a big part of the problem is that those people writing this code are under the mis-impression that ALL of Washington is the same, and ALL of Washington is urban .. which, of course, is far from the truth. We have some of the oldest suburbs in the area IN Washington itself ... Those are suburbs which should go by suburban rules and not urban ones which these 'one size fits all' proposals seem to want to cater too.

Also, interestingly the other day I was having lunch with an out of town friend (from another part of the country) who happened to mention that she was friends with Harriet Tregoning. She happened to mention that Harriet' husband is the president of "The National SmartGrowth Organization" or something like that (I'm paraphrasing the name. Jeez, an important conflict of interest like that you'd think someone with GGW with would have let us know. Well, I guess that explains a lot about the one-sided, single-focused policies ....

by Lance on Apr 19, 2012 10:41 pm • linkreport


What from my post is inaccurate? I don't see anything you wrote which refutes anything in the article.

You are correct that the corner store provision is not limited to corner buildings or buildings with historic uses as commercial in the draft as written. However, it is clear that it doesn't apply in low-density residential zones like Chevy Chase, as I said.

I believe what you are saying about the side setbacks is correct. This would allow side additions in extremely few cases beyond what is allowed today.

Your more detailed characterization of what happened with the institution confusion and the fraternity house issue fits with my understanding. Both have been clarified and so I hope that folks like the N4N flyer authors will refrain from alarming people by using it in future materials.

It is true that the accessory dwelling provision is a significant change. It is a trend nationwide and an important way to help people "age in place" by allowing them to downsize in their homes without having to move.

A carriage house could be built from scratch only for buildings that don't max out lot occupancy and don't have an accessory building now. Some may do so if they don't have a garage now. It would have to be small and 22 feet is not very high.

I believe you may be confusing 2 provisions when you list allowable uses such as "office, service, arts design & creation." Those are 3 of the 4 uses that would be allowable for "corner store" type businesses in row house zones, but that provision doesn't apply to single-family zones.

Home occupation businesses are also permitted but that is not a policy change from the current zoning. People can run businesses of their own, in certain permitted categories, out of their homes today.

I am not aware of changes to this but there may be some small ones. If so, please feel free to illuminate. I would be interested to hear if you have any concerns about home occupation businesses, but I have not heard any concerns thus far.

It's not clear why people would not have been aware of this process. In my neighborhood people who are active in civic issues have generally been very aware of it. There have been numerous discussions at the ANC and our ANC's Zoning Preservation and Development committee, of which both Anne Sellin and I are members.

I have tried my best to communicate it widely. Further, at the early workgroup meetings, people from your part of the city were generally represented in greater numbers than elsewhere, not that it's a contest, but it didn't seem to me at the time that it was an unknown in Ward 3.

It seems that perhaps the members of the task force could help to do more to keep ANCs and community groups apprised. Regardless, the draft is still not even officially out, as it's still in the task force stage, so it's far from too late.

I am definitely not arguing that people should not raise concerns. However, I think that any outreach such as flyers should be sure to present an accurate picture of the situation. This flyer is designed to stir emotion with a particular goal in mind, getting people to take a negative impression of the project. I think that's doing a disservice to the people of Chevy Chase.

Lance: Your dig at planners is misplaced. Contrary to what you are saying, they seem acutely aware that different parts of the city differ. That's why many of the provisions of the zoning update don't even apply to Chevy Chase in the first place.

It seems more to me that opponents don't realize the city is not all one place. Not every neighborhood is Chevy Chase and many of the provisions of the update will make a very positive difference in neighborhoods very different from Chevy Chase.

Robin Diener had a very insightful comment at the end of the Federation meeting, where she pointed out that perhaps those unhappy with the update are only thinking about its impact on their neighborhoods and not many others around the city where people are eager for development.

by David Alpert on Apr 19, 2012 11:38 pm • linkreport

Seems as if Chevy Chase Residents on both sides of the line tend to exaggerate. Chevy Chase MD opposed the Purple Line for a long time, and are opposing a Montgomery County Zoning rewrite which might, among other things, allow small accessory apartments by right and corner stores in residential zones. And higher density development at Chevy Chase Lake will end civilization as we know it.

So much to fear as we sit in traffic.

by Ralph Bennett on Apr 20, 2012 11:10 am • linkreport

@Lance, I don't believe that Harriet's husband's career has ever been a secret or something held close to the vest. She is open about what he does and where he works, as is he. They certainly don't use their respective positions to advance one another's platforms. He is the Executive Director of Smart Growth America. She used to be Maryland's Secretary for Smart Growth and helped establish that program. I don't believe this can in anyway be construed as a conflict of interest given the transparency that exists.
I believe the point of this article is to raise the flag regarding flyers meant to instill fear, not educate, are dangerous to the trajectory of public discourse, especially for planning and zoning issues.

by Allison on Apr 20, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

I think accessory apartments in the home can be very helpful for a variety of reasons. Having a caregiver living in the home or someone who is providing rent to help defray the maintenance costs and taxes can help homeowners to age in place or afford to stay in their homes and neighborhoods. Exterior accessory apartments present different potential affects on adjoining neighbors and those should perhaps only be approved after reviews that include the neighbors. Alternatively, there may be neighborhoods that are anxious to have garage apartments (OP says that Cap Hill supports) but others that are not so anxious. Georgetown sought and got OP's help to ensure that garage or carriage house apts. must be reviewed by BZA.

The replacement proposals for home occupations are quite different than what is currently allowed. The categories that I mentioned - arts design&creation, office, and service - would be applied, along with others, to the Chevy Chase neighborhood, which was the focus of my comment since its their flyer that started this discussion. But those non-residential uses would also be allowed in other detached and semi-detached neighborhoods throughout the city. OP is proposing to eliminate the 10-12 occupations that are currently allowed as home occupations and replace them with categories of types of business. As long as a business fits within the definition of that category the owner of the house could open that business. There are some conditions, such as the operator must be the owner and space limits, but these are no different than the conditions applied to the benign small list of professions currently allowed as home occupations. Also, there are no space limits if the business is located in the basement or the garage, which could substitute for locating business in the house or be in addition to using the part of the house that is susceptible to space limits.
Are the proposed conditions adequate to avoid adverse impacts on neighbors? Are there some occupations that should be allowed and others that should be reserved for commercial zones? The categories will apply to commercial and residential. The only distinction will be space limits, employee limits, number of vehicles that can be used to facilitate the business and in some cases that owner of house must run the business. Special exception review is available for some categories to waive conditions.

Some businesses will not have to be operated by the owner of the house. There are a variety of conditions or special exception requirements that apply to certain categories. To say it is complicated is an understatement.

by Nancy on Apr 20, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

Officials from the Zoning Commission presented on the zoning rewrite at the ANC 5B meeting last night (May 3rd). People in the audience repeated a lot of the incorrect talking points about corner stores taking over neighborhoods, etc.

Unfortunately, it was somewhat of a good-cop/bad-cop routine from the ZC officials, as one shot down rumors, another used talking points that sounded suspiciously like the alarmist flyer mentioned above.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 4, 2012 5:02 pm • linkreport


GGW may not have written about Harriet's husband, but it did call attention to the cover story on Harriet that Lydia DePillis did two months ago, which included a pretty thorough description of their relationship and shared professional interests:

by Christine on May 8, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

As a resident of Forest Hills I like the 8 foot side yards, which means 16 feet between my house and the neighbor's house. That 16 feet means air, privacy and light in the side windows of my house.

Under the proposed regs, a lot 50 foot wide would have to have 30% in side yards (15 feet) and at least 10% of that must be on one side (5 feet). So a neighbor or developer could build to 5 feet of the side lot line. If the lot next door were 6o feet wide, the neighbor could build to within 6 feet on one side of the house (with a total of 18 feet for both sides.)

What's the reason for this change? OP talks about the historical pattern in the older parts of the city, but why not just keep 8 foot side yards in the Northwest section where the 8 feet pattern already predominates.?

by Marjorie Rachlin on May 12, 2012 5:04 pm • linkreport

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