Spurning advice from the city's chief legal officer, the D. C. City Council agreed yesterday to consider legislation intended to bar any more foreign chanceries from residential neighborhoods of Washington.
Council Chairman Sterling Tucker said consideration of the bill would represent a showdown between the council and the National Capital Planning Commission, which - under the D.C. home rule charter - serves as a guardian of federal interests in the city.
"At some point, the extent of authority has got to be resolved, and this may be it," Tucker told a legislative review session of the council as he put the measure on the calendar for consideration Sept. 19. The council will be in recess until then.
Acting Corporation Counsel Louis P. Robbins, the city's chief legal officer, has ruled on three separate occasions that the council lacks authority to prohibit chanceries from residentially zoned neighborhoods.
That power, Robbins said, rests with the planning commission and the D.C. Zoning Commission, an autonomous arm of the city government.
The planning commission has recommended that foreign governments be given a clear right to locate their chanceries - as embassy offices are called - in certain residentially zoned areas, notably the Embassy Row area west of Dupont Circle.
The D.C. Zoning Commission has generally sided with the planning commission, but has recommended that the city keep the power to block new chanceries under certain conditions. The planning commission will consider the recommendation this month.
Edward B. Webb Jr., the City Council's top lawyer, told the council yesterday that he disagreed with Robbins, and concluded that the council has the power to prohibit chanceries in residential zones.
Webb's statement appeared to be decisive in the council's decision to consider the bill, sponsored chiefly by Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3).
Opposition to more chanceries is strongest in the Embassy Row area, but other areas are also affected. They are sections of 16th Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW, and around Logan Circle, 13th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.
In testimony at a council committee hearing last month, Lina Shenwick of the State Department's legal office urged against approval of the bill because it could disrupt efforts to find suitable locations for chanceries.
Shenwick and an official from the State Department protocol office observed the council deliberations yesterday.Afterward, Shenwick told a reporter. "We are just looking for some sort of workable plan that will allow us to meet our obligations to foreign countries."
Shackleton said she would support an amendment to her bill to permit France and Italy to build their long-planned chanceries on former residential estates.
The French government has applied to develop an eight-acre part of the Archbold estate on Reservoir Road NW at the western edge of Georgetown. The Italian government has filed a similar application for the 27 acre former Firenze estate on Brandy-wine Street near Rock Creek Park.