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Josh Levin’s “Wisconsin Badgers” (7/4) missed a crucial dynamic at work in the zoning battles in Tenleytown.
Imagine living a society where anytime anyone (well, not anyonejust any big developer) wanted to violate a law, he could file a set of papers with the government requesting permission, and the government would respond by saying, “If that law is getting in your way, let’s discuss exempting you from it. Is there any chance your project might generate some revenue for us?” When a group of citizens would protest that the law being tossed aside was put there to protect them, they would be dismissed as mindless obstructionists because, after all, it was not the first time they’d complained. In fact, they made a big fuss every time someone unveiled plans to violate the laws governing what can and cannot be done in their neighborhood.
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Oh waityou don’t need to imagine that society. I’ve just described D.C.’s zoning politics. And the moral of the storyat least in Levin’s tellingis that, for their sin of persistence, those annoyingly vocal citizens of Tenleytown shall be visited by a series of plaguesof mattress stores, of framing shops, of nail and/or tanning salonsuntil they see the error of their ways and shut up already.
If the D.C. government wanted to undertake a systematic and comprehensive reassessment of the current zoning (of the city as a whole, of Ward 3, or even just of Tenleytown and Friendship Heights), it would be a very different story. Then, at least, there would be a chance that zoning decisions could be made democratically, rationally, and with an eye toward their cumulative impact. That approach would also give people who care about their neighborhood real opportunities to participate constructively in planning the course of its development.
But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the Zoning Commission is making parcel-by-parcel rezoning decisions at the behest of developers that come in with proposals to build complexes that are more than twice as large as the existing zoning would entitle them to build. This developer-initiated, site-specific rezoning process forces ordinary citizens into
a lengthy and burdensome series of battles to stop particular projects from being built, because that’s the only context in which effective zoning decisions are being made. They are not being made legislatively or prospectively.
Bottom line: Tenleytown shouldn’t have to badger the D.C. government to get it to enforce its own zoning laws. And if the D.C. government thinks it got the zoning wrong, then it should revise those lawsnot just keep granting exemptions from them to big-bucks projects.