The District's Board of Zoning Adjustment has approved a controversial request to permit Taiwan's defense procurement division to locate at 1701 18th St. NW over the strong objections of neighborhood groups.
The six-month battle pitted numerous Dupont Circle residents against the State Department, which strongly supported the Taiwanese request.
"We're outraged by the BZA decision," said Ernest Harper, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. "We feel that the BZA has been hoodwinked by the Taiwanese and the State Department. The State Department just overwhelmed the BZA to get their way."
The neighborhood group said it plans to appeal the decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals, according to Cornish Hitchcock, a lawyer who is also the association's vice president. He said the group may seek a court order to prevent the Taiwanese from moving into the building until the case is heard.
BZA Chairman Carrie Thornhill denied that pressure from the State Department affected the board's handling of the Taiwan request.
Ronald Mlotek, chief counsel for the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions, said, "I'm elated at the outcome. I all along had faith in the procedures of the BZA."
Although the United States no longer formally recognizes Taiwan, Mlotek said the State Department supported the request because of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1978. That law established the Taiwan group, called the Coordinating Council for North American Affairs, and its American counterpart as unofficial representatives of the two countries.
The case became complicated when a problem arose over what to call the Taiwanese use of the four-story building. In its original request to the BZA, the Taiwanese asked that the facility be deemed a chancery, and the State Department supported that position.
But Dupont Circle groups staunchly opposed the chancery proposal, claiming their area already is saturated with diplomatic buildings that erode the neighborhood's residential character.
The District government's planning office also opposed the chancery request because the building is not within the proposed diplomatic zone the city zoning commission is scheduled to consider later this month. The planning office added that the building also is outside of the area where chanceries may locate under the District's comprehensive plan.
As a result of the opposition, the Taiwan group requested that its proposal be considered as general office use. Nonetheless, Whayne S. Quin, the lawyer representing the Taiwanese, did not withdraw the chancery application, leaving open the possibility that the BZA could approve the request as a chancery or as an office.
The State Department supported the dual position.
"We take the position that CCNAA is entitled to elect whichever treatment it wants," State's Mlotek told the BZA.
The city's planning office then softened its opposition, saying it would not oppose the request so long as it was called an office, and not a chancery.
In its decision Wednesday, the BZA approved the request as general office use. But neighborhood groups weren't convinced of the legitimacy of the designation.
"It certainly isn't like any other office building in the District of Columbia," said Harriet Hubbard of Dupont Circle area's Residential Action Coalition. For example, she said, because of immunities under the Taiwan Relations Act, the building never could be entered by D.C. building inspectors.
Hubbard said her group also is planning to appeal the decision.
The BZA also rejected a claim from neighborhood groups that it was illegal to approve the office request because the original application was for chancery use.
The BZA voted 4 to 1 to approve the Taiwanese office use, with Lindsley Williams the only member opposing it. He said he would reverse his vote if the federal government provided security. But other board members said it would be inconsistent to require federal protection for a building that they determined was not a chancery.
The group's current location at 2224 R St. NW is not patrolled by the Secret Service, an agency spokesman said. The Secret Service's uniformed division patrols foreign missions throughout the city.