From the Ground Up: The case of the missing orange zoning sign

The eighth installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories

 

Compass Coffee co-founder Harrison Suarez cannot find a parking spot near Judiciary Square, and he is late. It's the morning of May 13, the date of the forthcoming coffee shop's public hearing with the Board of Zoning Adjustment, or BZA. Compass Coffee needs the BZA's approval to obtain an exemption from a seating restriction placed upon prepared foods shops: Typically, a prepared foods shop is permitted 18 seats; Suarez and his co-founder, Michael Haft, want to offer 41. They applied for a variance in February, at a cost of $1,560, according to public BZA files.

Parking isn't the only problem: A few days earlier, Haft and Suarez learned they had not followed BZA rules for notifying the community of their public hearing. They were supposed to have placed a big orange sign with the date of the hearing in their business's window, but they were unaware of this requirement, they said, and had never received their big orange sign in the mail.

"Before this, I thought [the odds of getting the variance] would be 100 percent," Haft said. "Now, I'd say it's 50-50."


Compass Coffee's sign, posted after the first hearing.

Compass's case is listed is third on the agenda for the 9:30 a.m. hearing, so when Suarez hustles in at 9:54 a.m. with architect Brie Husted, he thinks he's made it in the nick of time: A panel of BZA board members is hearing the second agenda item, an application for an exception to allow a separate apartment in a one-family dwelling on Otis Street NE, which is granted. But the board moves on to the fourth item on the agenda, a Wisconsin Avenue parking lot, and Suarez notices on the handout: "The Board of Zoning Adjustment will adhere to the following schedule, but reserves the right to hear items on the agenda out of turn."

As it's explained to them by zoning specialist Stephen Varga a few minutes later, that's exactly what happened. Compass's number was called early, and when no one stood up to present their case, the BZA decided to delay their hearing.

"I f----d up," a crestfallen Suarez says. "I'm new to this."

Varga pledges to do his best to get Compass back on the agenda for that day. He speaks with the board members, and from behind the raised desk, there is much whispering and frowning. A few agenda items later, Compass catches a break: "Let's re-call 18751," says BZA chairperson Lloyd Jordan.

Suarez and Husted approach the desk, where they stand to be sworn in.

"Okay. Now, we called this case this morning and I hear that you were late," says Jordan. "We actually moved this to another date. We also note that there is no affidavit of posting in this file. I understand this has not been posted."

"That is correct," says Suarez.

"So there's nothing we can do with this matter that has not been posted," says Jordan. "You are required to do [the] posting. You understand that?"

"Yes sir, I absolutely understand. There's no excuse. It's my first time. I made a mistake,"  says Suarez. Jordan reassures him that it happens often, and that everything will be fine at the next hearing, if he follows procedure.

"Sir, I would ask, is there any way to make an exception in this case?" Suarez asks. "We've gotten support from the ANC."

"I would rather err on the side of being safe than not," says Jordan, after some discussion. "Let's put it on the June 3 docket. I don't think there's going to be any problems with the requested relief ... It's important that the neighborhood and community have the proper notice."

 Suarez heads across the hall to an administrative office, where he picks up his orange sign and huddles with Husted.

"I don't know if this is a huge setback. It's three weeks," she says. "Are you worried about it?"

"It's just a waste of time," Suarez replies. "In the context of a million moving parts, this adds uncertainty."

To rub a bit of salt in the wound, when Suarez returns to Compass Coffee, he walks past the neighboring site of a future Richard Sandoval restaurant where, at that moment, a woman is hanging the same orange zoning signs that had proven to be Suarez's folly.


_____________

Three weeks later, the big orange sign has been hung, and the proper documentation filed. Chastened by his previous appearance before the BZA, Suarez arrives 30 minutes early on June 3, bringing a thermos of Compass's house-blend coffee into the hearing room, despite posted notices forbidding food and drink.

"In the Marines, you always have an enemy," Suarez says. "We don't have an enemy right now. We're just fighting inertia."

He looks around the room at the other owners of businesses and homes seeking zoning relief, some of whom have brought legal representation. "I'm really enjoying the fact that I'm the only one here not wearing a suit."

Richard Sandoval's restaurant receives its variance, a special exception to put an addition on the building for commercial and residential use. Compass Coffee is called at 10 a.m., just as ANC 6E chairperson Alex Padro slips into the room to offer his support.

"Now this is one where we would have taken care of [it] the first time, but you hadn't posted," says Jordan.

"I'm learning," says Suarez.

"Everyone has been very supportive of this," says Jordan. "I don't know if we need to hear anything additional. Board?"

"I wonder if I might ask: You have a roasting room?" says zoning commissioner Michael Turnbull. It's a chance for Suarez to talk about the function of a coffee roastery as an educational center for the community.

"That's a very interactive coffee shop," says Turnbull. "Sounds like a very exciting place."

Padro chimes in with a few words about how the Shaw coffee shops are currently overcrowded, making Compass's need for additional seating particularly acute.

"I would move that we grant relief for 18751," says Jordan, and with the stroke of a pen, all of those Emeco chairs are no longer in danger of going to waste.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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Stephanie Merry · June 6