The National Capital Planning Commission decided by a one-vote margin yesterday to recommend that foreign governments be permitted to locate their diplomatic chanceries in some residential areas of Washington.
The action, which is not binding, is the latest round in a complex legal dispute that has pitted residents of some neighborhoods - notably the Embassy Row area west of Dupont Circle - against the State Department.
Before the planning commission reached its 4-to-3 vote yesterday, a State Department official, Harold Burman, told the panel that the dispute over chancery locations affects the U.S. conduct of foreign affairs "very directly and very clearly."
The planning commission is a federal agency, charged with representing the U.S. government's continuing interests in the development of the nation's capital since Congress granted home-rule powers to the local government in 1974.
In July the D.C. Zoning Commission, which is part of the local home-rule government, voted to restrict but not prohibit the location of chanceries - which are embassy offices - in residential areas of the city.
Under the Home Rule Charter, that decision had to be reviewed by the planning commission. The city zoning panel will consider yesterday's planning commission vote at a meeting tomorrow, when a final decision may be reached on the issue.
With yesterday's vote, the commission agreed to shrink the extent of areas in which it believes new chanceries should be located.
It eliminated a section of 16th Street NW from Columbia Road north to Spring Road; the area around Logan Circle, 13th Street northward and Rhode Island Avenue NW; an area in Foggy Bottom from E Street northward to the George Washington University campus, and two isolated areas in Northeast Washington where no chanceries have been proposed.
But it stuck by its guns in insisting that foreign governments have a right to locate chanceries on Embassy Row and in some areas now covered by "special purpose" zoning covers some older residential areas of the central city, such as lower 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW east of Dupont Circle. It permits buildings, including town houses, to be occupied by noncommercial offices.
The conflict boils down to the D.C. Zoning Commission's position that the city should have the ultimate power to deny permission for chancery locations, and the planning commission's position that the foreign governments have a right to such locations subject only to reasonable restrictions.
Ann Hargrove, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1-C, one of five citizens who spoke to the planning commission yesterday, said all chanceries should be located in commercially zoned areas. "Take out (permission for) anything that is residential . . . and you are in good shape," she said.
The D.C. City Council, in what could be a test of its legislative powers, had agreed to consider a bill that would outlaw all new chanceries in residential areas. The city's legal office has said the council lacks power to enact the measure.