The D.C. Zoning Commission tentatively approved a plan this week that limits development of foreign missions to prescribed areas in the District, further fueling the city government's long-running debate with the State Department about construction of the chanceries in residential neighborhoods.
The proposal, if adopted as initially approved by the commission, could lead to a D.C. government-State Department confrontation that eventually could involve Congress or the courts.
The Zoning Commission bowed to an onslaught of citizen groups concerned about the spread of foreign missions throughout the District. The commission gave preliminary approval to a substantially shorter list of locations where chanceries may be than had been proposed by two government planning bodies.
Earlier this year, the District's planning department gave the Zoning Commission a proposed map that contained nearly 200 city locations where foreign governments could have chanceries. That list included 26 "institutional areas," such as university and hospital land holdings, and more than 150 "other areas," specific sites scattered around the city ranging in size from a portion of a city block to about four blocks.
The planning department's proposal, based on a map approved earlier by the National Capital Planning Commission, was drafted to comply with the Foreign Missions Act of 1982. Congress designed the act partly to give foreign governments more latitude in choosing D.C. sites for their chanceries.
The District's proposed map was criticized by neighborhood associations that feared residential areas of the city would become further eroded if they were opened to chanceries, which are the office components of foreign missions. Several neighborhood leaders testified at three recent commission hearings. They said chanceries in residential areas increase parking and security problems.
As a result, the Zoning Commission ordered the planning department to recalculate the formula used in its original plan for mapping possible chancery locations. This week, the commission tentatively approved a revised list of chancery sites, which retained the original 26 institutional areas, but slashed the so-called "other areas" to about 40 sites.
Zoning commission member Lindsley Williams said the revised list "shows a good deal more sense in regards to residential areas."
Nate Gross, the chief of zoning services for the District's planning department, agreed that the new list would help maintain the quality of the city's residential neighborhoods.
"There was some awfully good citizen testimony that the city was very sensitive to," Gross said.
Citizen groups and the District's planning department have contended that foreign governments have numerous sites in the city open to them for chancery locations.
Most provisions of the Foreign Missions Act are part of the city's zoning laws, including sections that permit chanceries, as a matter of right, to be situated in areas zoned for commercial, industrial, waterfront or mixed uses, as well as in special purpose, diplomatic, medium-high- or high-density residential zones pending "disapproval" by the city's Board of Zoning Adjustment.
As a result, since 1982 the amount of city land available for chancery locations has increased in the "matter-of-right" category from 589 acres to 2,657 acres.
"We've provided ample areas" for chancery development, Gross said. A key issue surrounding the controversy has centered on how strict the Zoning Commission should interpret the chancery map. Citizen groups and the planning department have pushed for a "hard-edge map," which would essentially prohibit a chancery from being in an area not included on the map by requiring a zoning change -- a move generally considered to be a tough step for an applicant.
But the State Department has maintained that such a provision discriminates against foreign governments.
Ronald Mlotek, chief counsel for State's foreign mission office, said that while his agency would not support a foreign government setting up a chancery in an area that would disrupt a residential neighborhood, chanceries should not be prohibited, as a matter of law, from seeking to locate in areas not on the proposed map.
The State Department has been at odds for some time with the District's planning department about the interpretation of the chancery map.
"The D.C. government wants to have a map," Mlotek said. "We say fine. What we care about is what they do with the map." Mlotek said the Zoning Commission's tentative adoption of the chancery map limiting where chanceries may be is against the congressional intent of the Foreign Missions Act.
Despite State's views, the Zoning Commission members this week unanimously said the map should be viewed with a "hard edge," or more strictly.
Mlotek said that if the so-called "hard-edge map" wins final approval, thereby restricting where chanceries can be in the city, "it does guarantee the potential for further disagreement and a potential legal confrontation" between the State Department and the District.
He said Congress passed the Foreign Missions Act partly because foreign missions "were being deprived of equitable zoning treatment.
"Until the District of Columbia becomes a state, Congress has certain prerogatives here. . . . That law [the Foreign Missions Act] and our view must be respected."
Nonetheless, the commission rejected State's views that Mlotek presented at hearings held two months ago.
"I don't think the testimony from the State Department was convincing," commissioner Williams said. "There are plenty of areas where chanceries can be located."
Commission Chairwoman Patricia N. Mathews called the revised, shorter list of chancery sites "terribly reasonable."
The commission delayed final approval of the map for a month, during which time it ordered the planning department to inspect the remaining 41 city locations to ensure that those sites are in accordance with the approved formula for where chanceries may locate. Such a move, commission members said, was likely to result in additional sites being dropped from the map.
The remaining squares open for possible chancery development under the commission's tentative agreement, aside from the larger institutional areas, are selected sites throughout northwest D.C., mostly in the Foggy Bottom, Burleith, Kalorama Heights, Tenleytown and Friendship Heights neighborhoods.
Citizen groups that had lobbied hard against any further expansion of chanceries into residential neighborhoods were pleased with the shorter list, but continued to voice concern over the issue of additional building that could be permitted at existing chanceries.
Dana Perrone, a board member of the Woodley Park Community Association, said that neighborhood opposition to further chancery expansion "is not an antiforeign crusade," but a movement against any commercial or office development in residential areas of the city.
"Whether it's a foreign mission or IBM, it's equally obnoxious," Perrone said, adding that the fewer residential areas open for chancery development "certainly seems like a much more accurate and fair list . . . . "
Perrone's association, as well as other citizen groups, also want to prevent expansion of existing chancery buildings, such as the addition of a wing or the construction of a new building on lands already owned by a foreign government. A number of foreign missions have substantial land holdings that, according to citizen groups, are ripe for further construction if more space is needed by the mission.
"We're not trying to get them out" of the residential neighborhoods, said Perrone, adding, "We just want the status quo."
The commission, whose members seemed split over the issue of chanceries being permitted to expand their existing buildings, asked the city's planning department to the study the issue and report within a month.
A final decision on the entire case is expected next month.