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Social media kills bad policy against photographing permits

DC permit officials wouldn't let people take photos of building applications. Instead, people had to wait several days and pay to have copies made. But after several people including staff for Councilmember David Grosso reached out to officials through Twitter, this policy is no more.

Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

In May, I learned that the owners of a house across the street in Trinidad were going to add a pop-up. I wanted to see some details of their plans. Matt Ashburn offered (via Twitter) to go on his lunch break to look at the plans.

But Eric Fidler warned us that DCRA doesn't allow people to take photos of plans. Helder Gil, DCRA's Legislative and Public Affairs officer, said that he should be able to. Gil gave Matt the name of the head of the permit division, just in case a problem cropped up.

At DCRA, Matt asked an employee at the file room to see the plans and permit application for the house. The employee asked him to sign in with his name, addresses of concern, and documents he'd like to view, but said he couldn't see the plans that day. "If I [pulled plans immediately for someone in the office], I'd be working all day," she said.

Matt had to fill out another form with his name, phone number, and the permit numbers, and wait for a phone call in 1-3 days telling him when he could come back. In the meantime, he could see the permit application.

But when he tried to take a photo of it with his phone, he was told he wasn't allowed to take photos. Instead, he could pay the employee to make copies. "That's the policy. No photos of the paperwork," she insisted.

When Matt protested, the employee eventually offered to make free copies of the application to get rid of him. But then, the records manager, a Mr. Mason, refused.

Mason confirmed that all these records are public documents and that the public is allowed to view and hold them, but not to photograph them. "What a wonderful country we live in," he told Matt. Matt would still have to buy copies of the application from DCRA and copies of the plans from Blueboy Printing, a private print shop, because DCRA can't copy large pages itself.

Matt said he just wanted to take a quick photo to avoid the hassle. "That's just how it is," Mr. Mason replied.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Aaron Pritchard, Councilmember Grosso's chief of staff, saw our tweets about the issue and sought clarification from DCRA.

Gil jumped in. He made it clear that the director of DCRA was unhappy with the situation, and had asked the permit records department to stop enforcing it. Citizens could now take photos of permits, and that was that.

A few weeks later, I tried it for myself. I went to the permit office one Friday and asked to see the plans for the same house. Since the plans were off-site, I had to ask them to pull the plans, and an employee told me I could call back on Tuesday to see if they were available. When I did, I learned that I could come in the next day to see the plans. (They weren't, as it turned out, and I had to come back twice before they were finally available.)

The same employee strongly encouraged me to take photos if I wanted to have a record. Thankfully, that part of the policy worked the way it should.

As for that pop-up, here's what it will look like:

It appears that the new owners will replace one of the second-floor windows with a door, while the porch roof will become a deck. The plans don't specifically say what materials they will use for the addition, but it appears that it will be something like vinyl siding, as opposed to brick like the rest of the house.

Since my neighborhood isn't designated as a historic district, there's no process that controls the materials or design of building additions in my neighborhood, except that they have to meet zoning. But we were able to change one problematic city policy with help from social media.

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 


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I feel like we saw a lot more of this kind of thing under Fenty....

by andrew on Jul 11, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

Maybe we can get @DCPoliceDept to stop calling them "accidents" next. It's just bad policy.

by thump on Jul 11, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

Congratulations on your public information win. Last year while preparing for a lecture at the DeKalb History Center on Decatur, Ga.'s urban homesteading program I requested building permit files for several properties that had been in HUD's (and later the city's housing authority) inventory in the 1970s and 1980s. The files in Decatur include all transactions related to properties, from building and demolition permits to code violations. One day while looking at a file at the service counter, the head of permitting services approached and yanked the file from my hands telling me I could not look at the materials. I notified the City Manager that her staff had just violated the state's Open Records Act and got a watered-down apology.

Your post does, however, raise a bigger issue regarding the duplication of public records: deeds, plats, etc. in county clerk and courthouse record rooms around the country. Many jurisdictions still adhere to the no photo/scan policies like the one you describe. In these days of pocket scanners, smartphone cameras, etc., it is anachronistic and seemingly inconsistent with public records laws to require mediated photo-duplication. It's costly to the public who must pay high copy fees plus the costs to the jurisdictions who pay the staff to pull the records and make the copies. Plus, it is a tremendous waste of energy (to power copier) and paper. And, it's bad for the original, oftentimes historic documents, because they must be handled more frequently and manipulated on the surface of a photocopier by people not necessarily trained in handling archival records.

Again, good post -- it's been something I've been meaning to write about for some time.

by David on Jul 11, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

"Since my neighborhood isn't designated as a historic district, there's no process that controls the materials or design of building additions in my neighborhood, except that they have to meet zoning. But we were able to change one problematic city policy with help from social media."

You could talk to the owner if you have concerns. Some people do take constructive criticism. If you think the plans are really ugly, you could go door to door in your neighborhood and tell people about it and try to raise money to help improve the design.
There is no way for you to FORCE your neighbor to build a certain way or not at all but you can always talk about it.

by Richard B on Jul 11, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

Richard - the owner does not live there, and has not been there in person to talk to in months. I have reached out to him via email and will try to talk to him next time he's on-site. Rest assured that there is more to the story than what I wrote here.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jul 11, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

Unless you know something I don't, how do you know it will be vinyl siding and not hardi-plank (which is very durable and looks quite nice)?

We need all the extra density we can get in this city.

by h st ll on Jul 11, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

the issue isn't vinyl or hardie board per se but board vs. brick, when the building and the other buildings around it are brick and when using "board" changes the overall look and feel of the building and the neighborhood.

(My house is frame, it's covered in siding, I'd like to take off the vinyl, but they affixed "insulation boards" to the wood so I don't know how good the wood is underneath. I have no problem with replacing this with hardie board. But it would be "frame" to "frame" not brick with frame added.)

by Richard Layman on Jul 11, 2013 1:51 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I guess. They just put an all hardi plank rowhouse on 10th st NE (right at H) and its beautiful - and the block is all brick IIRC. I'd go take a pic but my son is asleep. I also think the transition can work on a single building, depending on massing, the quality of windows and numerous other factors. Often times it is done poorly, won't dispute that.

by h st ll on Jul 11, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

Sometimes it's desirable to make use of the distinction between materials - board vs. brick - to make clear which is the original structure and which is the addition. This is different from replacing existing wood siding with vinyl.

by DC20009 on Jul 11, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

Geoff: Your post begs the question: "Is there significant interest in getting parts or all of Ivy City historically designated?" What is the general sentiment of the community regarding historic designation? Designation would result in a design review for something like a pop-up.

by Scott Roberts on Jul 11, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

I really wish there was some happy medium between anything goes and all-out historic designation. The later can be way too restrictive, but "anything goes" really puts property owners at risk. Property values (and quality of life) absolutely can be impacted by your neighbor doing something hideous to their place.

I wish making fundamental changes to the form of a house, such as adding levels, changing facades, etc. could be subject to some reasonable, minimal degree of review. Many pop-ups really do ruin the cohesiveness of some rows of town houses.

by Boris on Jul 11, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport

I feel like it would be massively easier for everyone involved if the standard policy were for the department itself to take pictures when this stuff is filed, and store it digitally somewhere. I mean its not like server space is a premium item these days.

by TomA on Jul 12, 2013 7:59 am • linkreport

This post would be a lot better without the distraction of the author's irritating presumption that he should have veto power over his neighbor's construction project. Unless there's a compelling *public* interest involved a person should be able to build on their property as they see fit (adhering to zoning and other laws, of course). "I think this might not look nice" doesn't come close to meeting that standard.

by eric on Jul 12, 2013 8:58 am • linkreport

DC20009 -- sometimes, but not usually and not in this case. Mostly when you "distinguish" the materials in this manner they are more discordant. cf. the writings of Stephen Semes.

h st ll -- the first house on the west side of the street is historically, frame, likely constructed before 1877. So was the building next to it which was demolished around 2002. The brick buildings on that side of the street, constructed by the H St. CDC, apparently replaced frame buildings as well, based on a review of old plat maps that I did a long time ago. I don't remember the context of the buildings on the east side of the street. Most are brick.

by Richard Layman on Jul 12, 2013 9:01 am • linkreport

(I mean on the 800 block of 10th St. NE, not the building this post is referring to.)

by Richard Layman on Jul 12, 2013 9:02 am • linkreport

Interesting that no one thought to consider whether or not the reason for the photography ban is that the drawings are copyrighted (by the architect, engineer, and builder) and photography might put DCRA in the precarious position.

Legally speaking, an architect (or engineer or interior designer) owns the copyright to their idea. Usually their contract with their client states that they own the copyright to the drawings that convey that idea as well. In some cases the architect transfers ownership of the drawings to the client. In the former case, the architect would have to grant permission for reproducing or distributing the documents. In the latter situation, the client/homeowner has the authority to do so.

But in neither situation does authority transfer to DCRA. DCRA's authority is only to review the architect's drawings for compliance. The permit itself is a public document--the drawings are not. If DCRA allows random people to photograph drawings, they may be identified as a participant in theft of property and distribution of it.

The photo above is an even worse situation--the photo cuts off the logo of the architect. If the photo at least included their logo, the ownership of the intellectual property would be clear.

by not telling on Jul 12, 2013 9:39 am • linkreport

"Unless you know something I don't, how do you know it will be vinyl siding and not hardi-plank (which is very durable and looks quite nice)?"

Anything is possible, but have you *ever* seen a condo conversion like this (e.g. one that's mixing materials for the facade) that wasn't done in the cheapest way possible?

Rarely I see a nice 3rd story popup where they actually use a brick facade and make some attempt to match architectural details. But I've never seen someone who though it was OK to use siding to pop up a brick townhouse, also think they should spend three times as much on hardi plank.

by Jamie on Jul 12, 2013 9:53 am • linkreport

I think the headline of this story is wrong, it should be "DCRA Director Nicholas Majett Kills Bad Policy in Response to Citizen Requests." And as a media outlet, I must call out poor performance on GGW for not even naming the DCRA Director who made this change!

I'm sorry, but social media (twitter) did not kill this policy, it was simply the channel the request was made through. The medium of the request isn't what made the change, Director Majett made the change. Calling out this issue on twitter made it more visible to others.

This is the same as saying "Telephone Kills Bad Policy..." if someone had made a phone call, or "Sidewalk Use Kills Bad Policy..." if you had walked there.

People could have tweeted about this bad policy all they want, but it was Director Majett who said this makes no sense and put an end to it. As much as people are quick to complain about DC Government and employees and agency/department directors, we should be just as quick to acknowledge when DC Government, employees or agency/department directors make good decisions and support positive cahnge.

by bryandc on Jul 12, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport


The public nature of social media made it easy for several people to be involved in the conversation, including Aaron, who doesn't work at DCRA. It also allowed several other people who were not initially involved to express their opinion of "that's a dumb policy." All of these things help the director, whose job it is to set policy, make the right decision and change things.

Maybe it should be "Social Media helps kill bad policy" or whatever. But it's not just mentioning the media that was used to make the request, the fact that social media was used meant that the request was public, transparent, seen by many people, etc. which I think all helped make the change happen.

by MLD on Jul 12, 2013 11:23 am • linkreport

@MLD - sure multiple people jumped in on the issue, i just think there's too much credit being given to twitter in this case and too little being given to Director Majett who said:

"Our Director saw the question on twitter, inquired why we had that outdated policy, & asked why not just get rid of it."

Twitter/social media may have helped make the change, but without a Director willing to respond and make these changes nothing would have happened. These things happen everyday in interactions that take place in person, by phone, by email, and yes even on social media.

Again, everyone involved on this issues gets called out by name here by Geoff and GGW and gets credit for making this change EXCEPT for the person that actually MADE the change. DCRA Director Majett.

(and no, I do not work for DC Government)

by bryandc on Jul 12, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

bryandc: I'm very happy that Director Majett stepped forward and made this call, and I'm sorry that I didn't sing his praises more clearly. I will endeavor to do a better job next time.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jul 12, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

@ Jamie - i guess. I am not that familiar with Trinidad pop ups and if ya'll know this owner I will defer to ya'll. However, I live one neighborhood over (near ne) and did an informal survey the last couple of days. I didn't see any vinyl siding - everything was either brick, stucco, hardi plank or the fake slate on the front of the pop up. Plus i saw one cinder block. Now, values are higher in this nhood (not trying to be a prick but its true) so that is obviously a factor. But, I disagree that most popups are vinyl. Plus, the important thing to me is the added density.

by h st ll on Jul 13, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

I forgot the apt bldg on 8th st ne which has an ugly third floor addition with vinyl siding. And i should add i hate vinyl as much as the next person.

by h st ll on Jul 13, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

Part of me hopes the neighbors paint everything in the drawings big pink and yellow polka dots just to annoy the nosy snooping neighbor.

If they are not breaking any laws, then MYOB.

by Ray B on Jul 14, 2013 1:23 am • linkreport

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