Planners say the changes are necessary to shape a growing city, one that could see hundreds of thousands of new residents in coming decades as congestion fouls automobile commutes, energy prices rise and environmental considerations become more urgent. Detractors fear that the changes will dramatically change the character, or at least the car-centric way of life, in outlying residential neighborhoods.
Linda Schmitt, a Chevy Chase resident who is organizing opposition to the rewrite, said the changes could alarm residents who chose their neighborhoods with particular expectations.
“You put down your life savings, you pony up the mortgage, you take care of your property, you fix the roof, you try to be a good neighbor . . . and all of a sudden somebody wants to turn the apple cart over,” she said. “Who asked us if this was something we wanted? We don’t want this.”
But city planning director Harriet Tregoning said the proposed changes are modest, particularly in residential neighborhoods like Schmitt’s, but are needed to manage the District’s growth.
“It’s a necessary thing that we have to do if we really want the city to be prepared for the future,” she said. “It would be worse than a tragedy to allow people to continue to build for a 1960s city.”
The rewrite is also intended to organize and simplify a cache of regulations that has become a palimpsest of amendments and overlays. The new code will replace blocks of text with tables and illustrations to make it simpler for a property owner to figure out how their land can be used. Antiquated terms like “penny arcade” and “telegraph office” would be replaced by broader, less-explicit categories of acceptable land uses.
In terms of encouraging growth, the changes are somewhat marginal. Building density standards, for instance, will remain largely untouched outside of downtown and emerging neighborhoods to its east, where planners want to offer incentives for residential development.
But controversy has emerged over smaller changes meant to reflect policies that encourage walking and transit use, mixed residential and commercial development, and environmental sustainability.
Driving force behind debate
To discourage short car trips, for instance, corner stores would be made legal for the first time in a half-decade in denser, rowhouse-type neighborhoods. (Stores that existed prior to 1958 continue to operate in older neighborhoods, particularly Capitol Hill and Georgetown.)
Homeowners in most neighborhoods would have more freedom to create “accessory” apartments on their properties — for instance, basement apartments or garage dwellings that are not currently allowed or require the approval of a city zoning board.