It all started in 2018 when Lisa Kays and her husband, David Barth, decided to get a new oven. Along with the new appliance came a discussion about remodeling their kitchen, and it snowballed from there: They talked about expanding the bottom level into the backyard, moving the kitchen up to the second floor, and adding a third bedroom on the third floor.
At the time, Kays was pregnant with their second son, and the couple was weighing whether to move to the suburbs or remain in D.C. Drawn to the charm and convenience of Dupont Circle, the couple opted to stay put and renovate the $1.2 million home they bought in 2016.
Ultimately their plans would include a three-story, 13.25-foot extension on the back of their home on 15th Street NW, along with an added second story on the garage, a project that would easily cost half a million dollars. The renovation would increase their lot occupancy from 57 percent to 69.75 percent, which requires a special exception from the Board of Zoning and Adjustment.
But in the year since the couple first made their plans public, they’ve riled up residents of Dupont Circle who want to preserve the historic neighborhood, and their relationship with their immediate neighbors has deteriorated to the point that they’re no longer on speaking terms. Still, the battle rages on.
In emails, tweets, and testimony at nearly a dozen public meetings spanning at least three different government bodies, the couple traded barbs with their neighbors on both sides of their rowhouse—Britt and Peter Bepler and Sarah and Taylor Nickel—with whom they share walls.
Kays and Barth are accused of “weaponizing their children” to justify their addition. They accuse the Beplers and Nickels of being unreasonable in their demands and spreading false information to drum up opposition.
Both sides have hired well known (and expensive) attorneys to make their cases to the BZA. They estimate their bills to be between $15,000 and $20,000. The BZA approved the plans earlier this month, clearing the final hurdle before Kays and Barth can begin construction.
While the Beplers and Nickels decide whether to appeal the decision, Kays and Barth’s attorney, Marty Sullivan, says “it would be kind of extraordinary to appeal something so basic. It’s not a very complex issue.”
But before all of this happened, Kays and Barth got a late night alley visit from their advisory neighborhood commissioner, Ed Hanlon.
“What’s weird about this case is Ed managed to round up 30 other people to oppose it,” Sullivan says. “People who live in a condo building four blocks away. What do they care about a 13-foot addition? It was unusual to say the least.”
As Kays tells it, she and Barth were coming home late one night in March 2019, around 10 p.m., when Hanlon approached them in the alley behind their home. He lives at the other end of the alley, on Swann Street NW, and represents their single member district, 2B09.
She says Hanlon mistook them for their next door neighbors, the Nickels, and warned them about a proposal for a massive addition in the backyard. He promised to return with a packet of information when the couple corrected him.
“We were like, ‘Ed, it’s us,’” Kays says. “And he was like ‘Oh well in that case you’ve really been inappropriate with your process … You have to inform people, you have to be good neighbors, and you can’t just have everybody hating you.’”
The prospective builders needed a special exception from the BZA, which notifies neighbors living within 200 feet and considers input from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Hanlon, who works as a bankruptcy attorney and has lived in his home for 25 years, has a reputation as an opponent of home renovations in his neighborhood. He’s challenged two other sets of neighbors’ efforts to build decks on their homes on Swann and T streets NW, respectively. One case dragged on for years and ended with a civil protection order against Hanlon for stalking, as well as a $30,000 judgment under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law, which protects defendants in lawsuits against frivolous claims. Hanlon is still fighting the civil protection order in the D.C. Court of Appeals, despite the fact that it expired.
He has also filed complaints against his fellow 2B commissioners for their use and tacit allowance of retweets sent from the ANC’s official account that link to the profile of a candidate for D.C. Council. The Office of Campaign Finance fined Hanlon’s colleagues $4,000, but they’re appealing the decision.
Until Kays and Barth spoke with Hanlon, Kays says they hadn’t considered that anyone would care about their expansion but took Hanlon’s advice and emailed the Beplers and the Nickels.
Taylor Nickel replied with his primary concern that the shadow from the addition would negatively impact their garden—a major reason they purchased the red, $1.3 million rowhouse in the fall of 2018.
“For us it’s a bit of whiplash,” Sarah Nickel said in a recent interview. “Making a huge investment for the backyard and the garden and having that not be what we end up with in a matter of months.”
Britt Bepler echoes the Nickels’ objections and emphasizes the violation of privacy her neighbors’ addition would impose. Their backyard acts as a second living room, complete with a hot tub.
“I’m just gonna go in naked,” she declared in jest during an interview after an ANC meeting in December. “You can put that in there. Take a look. Lot to see. I’m kidding, but not really.”
Instead of a three-story addition, the Nickels and Beplers told their neighbors they would support a bottom level addition and a second level deck in an email last March.
Hanlon followed up with his own email to the three couples, writing, “We’ll see what response Lisa and David make to the points you have raised. I am hoping to see the same reasoned thoughtfulness in their reply. We do not live alone on an island. We live in a neighborhood where we all must try and listen and accommodate.”
That’s when things took a turn.
In the span of about a month last spring, Kays says inspectors from two different D.C. government agencies visited their home in response to anonymous complaints about an unlicensed daycare.
She says she explained that they’ve hosted a nanny share at their house for the past four years and provided the inspectors with pay stubs as proof. The inspectors couldn’t tell her who filed the complaint, but said the report indicated someone had watched multiple families dropping off multiple children every morning for the past four years.
“He was like ‘are your neighbors mad at you?’” she says. “And I said ‘yeah,’ and he said ‘That’s usually what this is.’”
Given the timing, Kays believes the complaints are related to their home expansion, and she fired off an email to several neighbors to let them know of the stress it caused them. She has suspicions of who may have complained but no evidence.
“We were baffled,” Britt Bepler says of Kays’ email. “We have no idea what she’s talking about, unfortunately. We tend to not want to involve ourselves in people’s personal lives. It was a strange email that the neighbors received from her.”
Hanlon denies making any complaint. “If Lisa and David did nothing wrong, that’s great,” he writes in an email. “If Lisa and David were in the wrong, I hope the situation has been corrected. I don’t know what the resolution was.”
Kays and Barth rejected their neighbors’ counter proposal, and instead offered to paint the addition a bright color “to maximize light reflection,” according to an email, and let them have input on the exterior materials.
For Britt Bepler, that felt like a slap in the face.
“They have two little kids, and they’re really cute kids,” she says. “I have no problem with that. I love kids. I want them to stay, but now they’re such assholes.”
One day last September, while reviewing footage from their garage security camera, Kays and Barth spotted Hanlon and vocal Dupont gadfly Nick DelleDonne milling around the alley behind their house. The Beplers and Nickels joined the men soon after.
That same afternoon, Britt Bepler emailed several neighbors asking for letters of opposition to the renovation.
“They are also weaponizing their children, under the auspice of ‘a growing family’ to justify this massive addition,” Britt Bepler writes in an attachment to the email. “As many of our neighbors (ourselves included) do not have children, we feel discriminated against as this being their sole purpose, which we also believe to be a lie – rather they intend to convert their property to multiple units (more than 2) and will rent them out.”
Kays denies that they plan to rent out any part of their home. She calls her neighbors bullies, and, in turn, says the Nickels are “weaponizing produce,” a reference to their argument that shadows from the addition would ruin their backyard gardens. Kays has tweeted about the ordeal for the past several months, referring to Britt Bepler as “Queen Bee Mean Girl.”
The next day the letters of opposition came pouring in.
There are currently more than 30 letters of opposition to the project filed to the BZA, many of which use the same language, and three in support.
DelleDonne, an ally of Hanlon and former 2B commissioner who lost his seat to Aaron Landry in 2018, is among the detractors. After the election loss, he formed the Dupont East Civic Action Association, whose goal, he says, is to preserve the historic look and feel of the neighborhood.
DelleDonne has earned a reputation as a vocal and at times hostile presence at ANC 2B meetings. During one meeting last year, he grabbed a woman’s arm as she stood up to speak, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by LL.
The woman’s arm was bruised, and she reported the incident to police, Landry says.
“Somebody was speaking, and she started to interrupt in a loud voice, and I touched her arm,” DelleDonne says. “And she immediately said ‘don’t touch me.’ It was barely a touch. It was nothing at all.”
Through his organization, he opposes Kays and Barth’s addition and has testified before the BZA.
“Lisa’s rowhouse is in the middle of the other two, and they comprise a unit so to speak,” DelleDonne says. “They’re not individual. They’re almost like apartments. So it’s right in the middle, and it upsets the balance.”
Ian Story, who lives across 15th Street NW, offers a different perspective.
“It is selfish of neighbors to be in opposition to this project for the sole reason that it may block their sunlight or obstruct their view,” Story writes in a letter to the BZA. “We are not entitled to unhindered sun nor the perfect view (of an alley no less). There is no legitimate reason to chase current tax-paying residents out of DC because of excessive regulations and NIMBY-ism. We should be encouraging the increase of housing supply as a bulwark against out-of-control pricing.”
Hanlon testified during the BZA hearing last month as an individual, not in his role as a neighborhood commissioner. He described how Kays and Barth’s addition would ruin the look and feel of the alleyway.
“This summer in my rear yard I grew mandevillas that climbed 14 feet up into the air,” he said. “Many of us have beautiful gardens. We live in our backyards. I have a gazebo. I have a grill. So do many of my neighbors. That’s the beauty of this alleyway … you can enjoy your backyards. It is an oasis from everything else around us.”
The BZA sent the neighbors back to negotiate before making a final decision. The Beplers and Nickels asked if they would reduce the addition to 8 feet, but Kays and Barth rejected that offer.
“Had they come to us in the beginning and just said ‘could you do 10 feet instead of 13?’ We would have probably been like ‘yeah, that’s fair,’” she says. “Now that we spent all this [time and money], we’re trying to get as much square footage as we can.”
Ultimately, the BZA approved the 13.25-foot expansion on Feb. 12.
Landry, the commissioner for 2B04, has watched the back-and-forth for the past year.
“Instead of neighbors coming to a mutual understanding, they were fueled into thinking that going to war was the right idea when going to war against your neighbor doesn’t help anybody,” he says. “I don’t know where they got that idea. I don’t know when Hanlon got involved, but neighbors don’t come up with this on their own.”
For her part, Britt Bepler says she appreciates Hanlon’s assistance.
“He’s been litigious in other ways, and I think that maybe affected how other commissioners wanted to deal with him,” she says. “He means really well. He was trying to be very diplomatic.”
As Kays and Barth wait for a possible appeal of the BZA’s decision, she says construction will likely start this summer or fall.
“It’s just bizarre to me how hostile it got,” she says.