The National Capital Planning Commission, the federal planning agency charged with protecting the federal interest in the Washington area, has recently come under attack from citizen and advocacy groups concerned that some NCPC members and staff may have ties with the development community that could lead to conflicts of interest.
While this is not the first time questions have been raised about potential conflicts within the NCPC, several recent examples have rekindled the discussion of whether the laws are strong enough to keep developers and companies with development interests from unfairly influencing the work of the commission.
Some citizens groups and several commission members themselves have said they are concerned that two Washington lawyers employed by law firms that regularly represent developers before the NCPC are screening applicants for the position of legal counsel to the commission.
Reginald Griffith, executive director of the NCPC, said he set up the panel because he "needed lawyers experienced in this field to review the applicants." But one commission member said it was "improper" for outside lawyers to review applicants for what Griffith called "one of the commission's most important jobs" and one member said he wasn't even aware it was happening.
Such a review panel is not illegal and the two lawyers have said they are simply providing a pro bono service for the government, but groups that find themselves fighting the developers before the commission have complained that they view such a tie between zoning attorneys and NCPC staff as unethical.
"I would feel a lot better if the screening panel was made up of people who worked for the agency rather than outsiders," said Robert Peck, president of the D.C. Preservation League, "let alone outsiders that work for the developers who come before the commission seeking approvals."
Of more lasting concern, however, say citizens groups, is the potential conflicts for commission members who in their private lives are developers or architects and as commission members review projects that could benefit their own businesses.
Some citizen and neighborhood groups raised questions when it became public knowledge in January that a development company owned and operated by NCPC chairman, Glen T. Urquhart, had signed a contract to buy four acres of land adjacent to Union Station. Urquhart now owns that parcel and hopes to build an office building on it.
The NCPC, which reviews all development proposals that effect federal properties and interests in Washington, will approve the final design and renovation plans for the redevelopment project for Union Station. The NCPC would most likely also have to approve any office building development next door to the station, if the development included a request for zoning modifications such as increased density or height.
Urquhart, who says he understands his interest in the Union Station development presents a clear conflict of interest, has recused himself from any votes on Union Station and, in a written memo, asked NCPC staff and members "to be careful not to inadvertantly communicate anything that could be interpretated as insider information" to him on the Union Station project.
But some citizen's groups and several commission members, who asked that their names not be used, say they still have concerns over his involvement because as chairman he directs the meetings and sets the agenda of items to be discussed and decided.
The NCPC has also taken up consideration of the Dulles Airport Master Plan, a proposal that includes recommendations for a rail line linking Dulles to the metrorail system. Any rail line built along the Dulles corridor would significantly increase the value of land around the airport, say northern Virginia developers, and one of the big landholders in the area is Urquhart. His development company, Glen Urquhart and Associates, is located at Dulles airport.
Urquhart abstained from voting on a proposal to reconsider the Dulles master plan last week, but only after first asking for a unanimous vote.
"The pro-Dulles policy of the NCPC was in place before I became commission chairman, as was the inclusion of a rail link to the airport," he said. "I try to be helpful during the discussions on the airport because I have some knowledge about it and feel that I can have make it work better."
"Someone perfectly free of conflict would be someone perfectly free of knowledge," said Urquhart. "There are rules but beyond that people just have to be honest."
This is not the first time citizen groups have registered concern over conflicts of interest for commission members. The former chairman, David M. Childs, was an architect with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and designed the Metropolitan Square building for the Oliver T. Carr Co. while serving on the commission.
At that time Leon Ulman, deputy assistant attorney general, wrote the commission outlining the federal regulations that applied to commission members. In that letter Ulman said that if Childs recused himself from participation in particular matters in which he or his firm had a financial interest, there would be no violation of federal conflict-of-interest statutes.
"People are selected to serve on the commission because of their knowledge of zoning, architecture or land use, and there will always be the potential for conflict, it's unavoidable," said Griffith. "Members with those conflicts know they have to step back and they always recuse themselves" from votes or discussions that involve their work.
But former commissioner Ann E. H. Loikow, who served as a mayoral appointee from 1979 to 1983, said that she felt the situations presenting conflicts for commission members in the past had been dealt with "very unsatisfactorily."
"The chairman can control the staff and sets the agenda," said Loikow. "Even if he recuses himself later from a vote doesn't mean he can't influence the decisions."
Peck, and members of other citizens groups in Washington, admit that all the commissions overseeing development in the city have problems with potential conflicts of interest because their members are chosen from the community they regulate.
The Fine Arts Commission and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., both of which act as federal commissions overseeing development in certain parts of Washington, have faced such problems.
"The problem is that the people you have on these boards have to live in the real world and yet at the same time they should be as close to purer than the driven snow as possible," said Peck.
One of the private lawyers sitting on the panel reviewing candidates for the position of legal counsel to the commission is Daniel H. Shear, the former legal counsel and secretary. Shear retired at the end of the year and now works with the law firm of Duncan, Weinberg & Miller.
Shear, who worked for the commission for 25 years, was a member of the Senior Executive Service when he retired, which means he must comply with a federal law prohibiting any senior federal official from representing any group before his previous employer on any issue for one year. He is banned from representing any group before his previous employer on an issue he worked on while employed by the government for the rest of his life.
Shear says he understands the bans and that his role on the review panel screening applicants for his replacement is only one of lending his expertise.
The other private citizen on the review panel is Walter Lewis, former D.C. Zoning Commission chairman and now a member of Linowes & Blocher, a law firm that handles a significant share of the zoning and development matters that come before the commission.
Linowes & Blocher attorney J. Kirkwood White, a former chief of the D.C. planning office, recently won approval for a the controversial Techworld project from a divided NCPC, after convincing members that the federal interest should be expanded in this case to include concerns over the economic health of the city of Washington.
Lewis and Shear both said they did not agree to serve on the review panel until assured that it was legal, and that they are not selecting staff but are just "screening out inappropriate candidates." They have conducted interviews and forwarded a list of "appropriate" candidates to Griffith, who with Urguhart will have final choice.
"This firm Linowes & Blocher has no interest in the people selected," said Lewis. "I'm just serving my government again and I bring with me my integrity. My membership in this firm has nothing to do with my reviewing the applicants."
"Technically they may be correct, but at the same time you wonder whether the law is adequate for such a situation," said Richard Wolf, a member of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. "Shear and Lewis are helping choose a staff member who will later be on the other side of the table when they come before the commission representing developers."
William Cochran, vice president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown and the chairman of the group's zoning committee, said that he understood that the competent people for such jobs as positions on the NCPC or Fine Arts Commission were the people that would have the conflicts, but that his group was concerned when the ties became too close.
"With Mr. Urquhart, you just have to rely on his integrity, but there's always a question hanging around that," said Cochran. "If you get so you are recusing yourself all the time, maybe you shouldn't be on the commission."