It took Kevin Cummins four months of hacking through a bureaucratic thicket before he got a glimpse of what should have been available on the District government’s website:
A developer’s plans to build an oversize, four-story addition on the rowhouse next door.
Under a long-standing D.C. law, the District is supposed to put plans for proposed construction projects online. Instead, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) forces residents to file time-consuming requests that can drag on until shovels are already in the ground.
And to get copies of those records, residents must go to — and pay — a company that has no contract with the District, an unusual arrangement that one city watchdog called an “egregious” violation of the law.
Blue Boy Imaging, a print shop tucked among industrial buildings behind Union Station, has become the de facto “copier” for the city’s construction agency over the past decade. It sets its own price for copying the public records, with no input or oversight from the city. D.C. officials say they have no idea how much money has gone to the company over the years.
The minimum price for copies of building plans is $15.90, city officials say.
“It’s entirely improper,” said Traci L. Hughes, director of the District’s Office of Open Government.
The DCRA, the building agency, last week acknowledged the problem. Officials there said they don’t know how the informal arrangement with Blue Boy began.
“Although we cannot speak to the reasons for decisions made more than a decade ago, we acknowledge that the agency is not in strict compliance with this requirement and are actively exploring solutions to get it fixed,” agency spokesman Matt Orlins said.
Cummins and other residents say the difficulty getting information about proposed construction projects discourages all but the most persistent neighbors from scrutinizing the plans, stifling an extra layer of oversight amid a building boom in the nation’s capital.
Cummins says his experience provides a case in point.
He was surprised to learn in February last year that a project was planned next door. He had no idea until he received an email that construction workers needed to enter his home to inspect the wall between the two rowhouses before they began their work, he said.
In March, when he went to the DCRA office to ask to look at the pending application for a building permit, he filed a formal request for records. He heard nothing in response for months, he said. Cummins turned to his local D.C. Council member for help. He emailed DCRA officials. And he appealed directly to the agency’s director at a public event.
Four months after his request, the agency agreed to let him review the file in DCRA offices but said he couldn’t take photographs or copies of them because the permit had not yet been approved. Cummins, a 39-year-old federal worker, said he found many errors in the application, ranging from procedural mistakes to problems more significant.
The mailed notices that were supposed to be sent to neighbors when the project was proposed were addressed to homes on a similarly named street in a different quadrant of the District.
Cummins said the developer was planning a 40-foot addition to the rear of the home — a “pop-back” — that appeared to exceed the allowable size. An existing garage and addition were not drawn in the plans, masking how much of the lot was covered by structures, he said.
When he pointed out those and other issues, he said, a DCRA official put a hold on the project. In the meantime, the developer sold the property to another builder, and Cummins is now trying to find out whether the building permit was also transferred.
“I know neighbors whose property was damaged through poor or improper construction, so it’s very concerning when this happens,” he said of his trouble getting access to the first developer’s plans.
Hughes, who reports to the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, conducted a review last year after her office received a complaint about access to the DCRA’s records. In her report in January, she said that the DCRA was “woefully out of compliance” with the public-records laws.
D.C. statutes require public disclosure of “all pending applications for building permits and authorized building permits, including the permit file” and require them to be “made available on the Internet.”
The agency issued more than 45,000 building permits last year alone.
“The purpose is to give residents the ability to know what’s being built around them and to give them an ability to engage with the civic process,” Hughes said in an interview. “Without that, if they are not inspired, they may find themselves at a disadvantage.”
In the report, Hughes, who issues opinions and investigates whether District agencies are following transparency laws, wrote that top DCRA officials told her they were unaware of the requirement that building permit applications must be made available to the public — a response she deemed “unpersuasive.”
The report called the required payments to Blue Boy “the most egregious” of the violations.
The DCRA spokesman said the agency sends the building files to Blue Boy because it “does not have the capability to copy large-scale plans onsite.”
Hiram Russell, owner of Blue Boy, said the arrangement began in the early 2000s because the print shop was near the DCRA, then on North Capitol Street.
“The fact that we were close at the time is my only explanation,” he said.
The DCRA spokesman said that “over time, the practice became standard.”
Russell also said the DCRA copying represents a very small share of the company’s work. It specializes in printing building plans for construction companies.
“We don’t get any special favors,” he said.
In 2008, Blue Boy contributed $1,000 to then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and in 2010, Russell gave $500 to former mayor Vincent Gray’s campaign committee. He said the donations were unrelated to the arrangement.
The DCRA said it doesn’t know how much money has gone to Blue Boy for providing copies of public records because the payments go directly to the company. Hughes said that also was contrary to D.C. laws and, in her January report, strongly urged an end to the practice. Last week, a reporter requesting a copy of a building file at the DCRA was told to fill out a records request that said to “contact the copier to arrange for payment of documents.”
The DCRA employee also provided a card with Blue Boy’s contact information on it for copies.
Hughes said she found that “alarming” because she said she was clear with top DCRA officials that “this cannot continue.” Her office, however, has no authority over the DCRA or its officials.
Mark Eckenwiler, a Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and former federal prosecutor, said at a recent council hearing that the lack of transparency at the DCRA was troubling, given concerns among residents about illegal construction that could imperil surrounding homes.
“It’s not just a formalistic obsession with words on a page,” he said. “People’s lives can be upturned.”
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) agreed to hold a hearing on the issue later this year.
Orlins, the DCRA spokesman, said Thursday that the DCRA is preparing a list of companies besides Blue Boy that can provide copies, but it’s not clear that would satisfy Hughes and other critics, who insist that they should be available for free online and without a written request.
That would take time and money, Hughes concedes. The agency’s building records would fill an estimated 2 terabytes of digital storage space each year, and there are millions of large-scale documents and drawings from previous years only in hard copy.
Orlins said Friday that the DCRA “is committed to trying” to provide the documents for free and was studying whether city laws require them to do so, as Hughes contends. The agency’s Office of Information Systems estimates that building an online system that can offer the service would take 24 months if the agency can find the money to do so, he said.