Technically, D.C. has had home rule for 41 years. In practice, the federal government still has all kinds of checks on D.C. autonomy. Congress, of course, holds the most power over District affairs, with the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973 stipulating, “the Congress of the United States reserves the right, at any time, to exercise its constitutional authority as legislature for the District.” But when it comes to day-to-day control over the city, there are three bodies that have a stronger influence.
There’s the National Park Service, which controls 6,832 acres in the District and sets the rules for what can and (more often) can’t happen there. There’s the Zoning Commission, which has control over any changes to the city beyond what’s permitted under the zoning code—-and is currently reviewing the first comprehensive rewrite of that code in more than half a century. And there’s the National Capital Planning Commission, which has the power to weigh in on many local planning matters, including the 1910 law that limits D.C. building heights and nearly got its first major overhaul before NCPC rejected that notion.
On all three sits a man named Peter May. (He also rotates onto the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which grants exceptions to zoning restrictions, and is a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board, with authority over road and transit planning for the region.) May is a soft-spoken bureaucrat who holds the untweetable title of Associate Regional Director for Lands, Planning, and Design for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service. He is not power-hungry: His seat on the Zoning Commission comes with his Park Service job, as does his spot as third alternate for the Department of the Interior on NCPC (although in practice, he’s been the representative there ever since he started at the Park Service in late 2007). Nor does he seek to impose an undue federal burden on the District, a city he’s called home for 37 years and whose interests, he believes, align with the Park Service’s mission of preservation.
Instead, he’s simply a manifestation of the many ways the feds have their hands in D.C. affairs in the home rule era—-if an unusually prolific one. He’s also the subject of my cover story in today’s paper. It’s a profile of perhaps the person with the most control over shaping D.C.’s future whom you’ve never heard of. Give it a read, if the spirit moves you.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery