What does it mean to ''own'' land? How has the use of land and its regulation affected the look of Washington and, by way of comparison, other cities as well?
For thousands of years, owning land really meant controlling it. Just like animals instinctively occupying and guarding their territories against competitors seeking to drive them out or devour them, our ancestors could assert ownership claim only to those lands they could defend. Even today, this is still true in some parts of the world.
As human civilization and laws evolved, the method for acquiring and holding land changed. With consolidation of Europe's Kingdoms and colonies, monarchs could grant lands to nobles or colonizers who, in turn, could grant it to others. Such grants of lands within recognized realms were evidenced by a landgrant document or title stating clearly that the subject property had indeed been given by the grantor to the grantee.
Grantees could continue to subdivide and grant parts of their estates to subsequent property owners, with the preceding chain of ownership (back to the King) being cited as proof of the right of conveyance. It became traditional to inscribe such transfers of title in church records, which were seen as both public and institutionally permanent. This set the precedent for public recording of real property title transactions.
But ownership of land meant more than the rights of possession and conveyance. To own land implied freedom to do with it as one pleased, without interference. True dominion and control entailed rights to use and improve land, to cultivate it, to build on it, to bequeath it, to encumber it by pledging it as collateral, or to lease it to others. These perpetual rights could be taken away only by consent.
Yet absolute, unencumbered private control over the use of land was curtailed as societies began to urbanize. Living close together required that certain compromises be reached between private and public interests. Even in the most primitive cultures, tacit understandings existed about what was acceptable or unacceptable to the community regarding land use.
Before and during the 18th century, European cities had well-established civil codes regulating the type and size of building that could occur. Paris had controlled the height of its buildings since the 16th century, a fact well known to Pierre L'Enfant, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
With the creation of the American republic at the end of the 18th century, two things happened that would interact significantly in the future to shape Washington, D.C., and most other cities as well. One was the adoption of a federal constitution that entitled government to pass laws and take actions needed to protect the public's ''health, safety, welfare, and morals.'' The other was the establishment of the new federal city in accordance with a grand plan conceived by L'Enfant.
Both events were expressions of public policy. Most important, the constitutional provision ultimately would justify the right of government to adopt, implement, and enforce plans for cities. Further, such plans would take precedence over economic and private property rights for which Americans had battled during the war of independence.
Even when the District was being mapped and laid out, private interests were subordinated to public interests when it became necessary to tear down Daniel Carroll's partially built house -- it interfered with the prescribed street plan.
Urban historian Ruth Ann Overbeck points out that George Washington, as a matter of public policy, defined the types of buildings that he thought should be erected, their height (2 to 3 stories), their materials (frame, brick, stone), their relationship to the street and to other buildings. However, enforcing these stipulations was occasional and haphazard.
There was no government agency officially charged with policing construction, something left mostly to the ad hoc initiatives of land speculators and city commissioners. Platted lot sizes depended on whether lots faced a street or avenue. Deed restrictions imposed time constraints; a lot title could be forfeited if construction didn't proceed by a certain date.
Agricultural uses supposedly were disallowed, and buildings containing "nuisance" uses ran the risk of being torn down. A unified, overall plan was required for the construction of row houses, along with proposed street grades.
But President Washington himself had waived the height regulations in 1796. In 1818, President Monroe rescinded the regulations altogether. In 1822, the city council outlawed wooden houses higher than 20 feet and reinstated some of the previous regulations. Later the wood-building height limit again was abandoned.
As the century went on, lot-by-lot deed restrictions imposed by developers and subdividers continued to control land use and construction more than any overall public plan or ordinance. Some of these lot restrictions concerned light and air, types of use (residential, commercial, or industrial), building materials, or the sale and use of alcohol. Some restrictions were unabashedly social, racial, or economic in intent.
With the advent of the renewed commission form of government and Boss Shepherd in the 1870s, another set of building regulations was passed. Businesses could not locate in residential blocks, although this too was not strictly enforced. Wooden buildings were generally limited to three stories, and buildings without fireproofing could not exceed 75 feet, except churches.
In 1897, a fire downtown destroyed 22 buildings in one block. This prompted Congress to enact still more piecemeal regulations affecting yards and setbacks for light, air, and access. Certain streets were designated specifically for commercial or residential use only. And allowable building heights were determined by street widths: 90 feet on residential streets, 110 feet on commercial streets, and 130 feet on avenues.
By the turn of the century, the ''city beautiful'' movement was in full swing. The McMillan Commission was doing its work to rediscover and implement the monumental and aesthetic intentions of the L'Enfant plan. And Congress continued to tinker with D.C.'s height regulations. Meanwhile, New York City was moving toward the adoption of a citywide zoning ordinance, an example soon to be followed by Washington and other cities.
Indeed, in 1920, Congress empowered the District to draw up and adopt a comprehensive zoning ordinance similar to New York's. The commissioners hired planner Harland Bartholomew, assisted by the Army Corps of Engineers. They conducted land use studies and prepared a zoning proposal dividing the district into residential, commercial and industrial zones with associated use, height, and building bulk restrictions.
Bartholomew's effort amalgamated the 1916 New York ordinance, with its three categories of use, and the St. Louis ordinance, which had several subcategories. Washington's first zoning code was approximately 20 pages measuring 5 by 7 inches, of which three pages were definitions.
Not everyone thought it was a good idea. In fact, since the city's beginning, many citizens have denounced any and all such regulations as arbitrary, unfair, and, above all, compromising of their inalienable private property rights. And most were convinced that the Constitution of the United States was on their side, despite Congress' interpretation of it.
Likewise, Americans outside of Washington believed that zoning was a clear case of government abrogating individuals' rights in favor of the collective's. Not surprisingly, six years after the adoption of D.C.'s first zoning act, the very concept of zoning would be tested legally in the Supreme Court of the United States.