Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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More than a dozen community members in leafy Northwest have filed a lawsuit against the D.C. Council and the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser, throwing a wrench into the District’s plan to close the aging and insufficient D.C. General homeless shelter.

Led by the group “Neighbors for Responsible Government,” the residents brought a civil complaint Tuesday against city officials for allegedly circumventing the authority of neighborhood commissioners in choosing the Metropolitan Police Department’s Second District station on Idaho Avenue NW as the site of a yet-to-be-built 50-unit homeless shelter. The lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, claims the council and mayor “fail[ed] to give the affected Advisory Neighborhood Commission—[ANC 3C]—any prior notice” of changes to the use of the publicly owned site, and “default[ed] on [their] obligation to give ‘great weight‘ to any recommendations of ANC 3C” as required by law. Anticipated to go up at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW, the shelter is part of a larger plan to replace D.C. General with smaller facilities across the District.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court injunction that would prevent the city from proceeding with construction of the Ward 3 shelter. Though estimates vary, officials have said the new sites should all be up and running by the end of 2019 or early 2020.

The Northwest Current and NBC4 first reported about the complaint. David Brown, an attorney for the residents, could not immediately be reached for comment. But he told NBC4 that his clients are asking the city to “go back to the drawing board and give the ANC an opportunity to present its issues and concerns.” Residents already voiced those concerns, mostly regarding potential (yet unlikely) impacts on real estate and schools, at meetings earlier this year. (One neighbor even lamented to The New York Times that the Ward 3 shelter might require killing “decades-old trees.”)

In reacting to the lawsuit, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said in a statement that the plaintiffs “misunderstand the process” by which the site was chosen. She noted that the Zoning Commission must approve a change in use for the property, and that the ANC will have a chance for input when a request for zoning relief is made. 

“We have not yet come to that point,” Cheh said. “The fact that the Council voted for an appropriation for a shelter site on Idaho Avenue does not eliminate, in any way, the ANC or community’s involvement.” (Housing Complex has reached out to Bowser and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson for comment and will update this post if we hear back.)

You can read the full suit here.

Update 12:45 p.m.: Brown, the residents’ attorney, said the complaint focuses on “a failure of process.” “We are not asking the court to second-guess the wisdom of the site selection, but rather to address the mayor and council’s failure to follow the legally prescribed process of obtaining input about the site selection before it is a done deal.” He added that his clients particularly object to the use of the police station’s parking lot as the site of a homeless shelter.

“The wisdom of that choice is the issue we hope to have a later opportunity to speak to at a future ANC 3C meeting,” he said. A spokeswoman for Mendelson declined to comment because the litigation is pending, while a spokeswoman for Bowser noted the mayor would review the suit with the Office of the Attorney General, which also declined to comment.

Update 4:36 p.m.: In a brief interview, Mendelson said the legislature’s general counsel will be defending the act authorizing the construction of the homeless shelters. “If [the plaintiffs] do prevail, which I don’t think they will, then it would have an impact on the timeline,” he explained. “If they don’t prevail, I don’t think it affects the timeline.” Mendelson added that months of public discussion led up to the Council’s votes on the legislation and that the Board of Zoning Adjustment process will allow for community members to express their remaining concerns.