After nearly two years of surveys, reviews, hearings, paperwork and parliamentary process, the ponderous machinery of the District of Columbia government is finally on the verge of closing a nonexistent section of Brookland Avenue NE.
The land involved is seven inches wide and six feet long.
Located between Brookland Avenue and right-of-way shared by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Metro's new Red Line to Silver Spring, the land is occupied by part of a small steel shed that houses control devices for the B&O signal system.
Unless the street right-of-way is formally vacated by the city, officials say, the railroad cannot obtain legal title to its own building.
Before that becomes possible, the city's law on street closings dictates that three more things must happen:
Mayor Walter E. Washington must sign the bill authorizing the street closing that was passed last Tuesday by the D.C. City Council.
Then the measure must be carried to Capitol Hill, where Congress will have 30 legislative days to decide whether to overturn the city's action. This process, designed to protect federal interests from any runaway action by the the D.C. home-rule government, actually will take from 60 to 90 calendar days - and perhaps longer if Congress takes an early summer recess.
Finally, if the measure is allowed to stand, the D.C. surveyor must advertise plans for the actual closure, and allow 30 days for protests. He must take this step although the only one with an apparent legal right to protest is Metro, which petitioned the city for the street closing in the first place.
"I think there needs to be some revision of the rules to shorten the process by which streets and alleys are closed," council member Jerry A. Moore Jr. (R-At Large), chairman of the council's transportation committee, said after the council acted on the closure bill.
"What it really boils down to is that there are too many people in the act, from our point of view," Moore concluded.
The procedures are spelled out in a law passed by Congress in 1932, modified by the city's Home Rule Charter that took effect in 1975. They require that every street or alley closure be authorized by a legislative act of the council.
Occasionally a major private construction project depends upon alley closings so a building site can be assembled. "Sometimes this procedure holds up millions of dollars of private construction and automatically escalates the cost of a project," Moore said.
If the Brookland Avenue closing were urgent, it could have been speeded considerably, city officials said. Since it was needed merely to legalize something that already had taken place, it was assigned a low priority.
According to Royce A. Drake Jr. of Metro's engineering office, the problem was created in 1974 when work was under way on the Red Line, which required the relocation of the adjacent B&O tracks.
The railroad needed to erect a small shed to house signal control equipment. Safety, operating and tracking maintenance conditions dictated that the shed be located where one end would poke seven inches into vacant land reserved for the Brookland Avenue right-of-way. The street pavement actually is about 20 feet away, swinging to the west and forming the entry to a D.C. government trash disposal facility.
The D.C. government granted a permit that allowed the shed to be built. A high chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, was erected to separate the railroad facility from the street.
However, B&O could not obtain clear title to its own property - the shed - unless it owned all the land underneath it. That led Metro in 1976 to ask the city to vacate the small silver of land. The municipal machinery soon went into motion.
By law, the National Capital Planning Commission had to review the proposal. On March 4, 1977, its executive director, Charles H. Conrad, notified the City Council that closing the seven-inch-wide strip "will not have a negative impact on the interests or functions of the federal establishment or other federal interests in the national capital region."
Thus, assured, the council's transportation committee published a notice in the D.C. Register announcing that it would hold a public hearing Sept. 12 on proposals for 10 street and alley closings, Brookland Avenue among them.
There were no objections. The municipal planning office recommended the approval. The area's neighborhood advisory commission made no recommendation.
On Jan. 20, 1978, with committee staff work completed, council member Moore introduced Bill 2-263, officially titled "closing of a part of Brookland Avenue NE, Act of 1978."
The bill passed first reading in the council April 18. It received final passage two weeks later.
The council's report on the bill was 18 pages thick. It would take only four pages of the report to physically cover the silver of land, if the B&O's shed were not there already.