Burleith residents weigh custom zoning to manage area development

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Development in Burleith along the lines of this pop-up project has sparked discussions about custom zoning. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2016)

Burleith residents are considering the possibility of requesting new custom zoning to help manage rapid development in the neighborhood.

The Burleith Citizens Association began preliminary discussions by inviting local experts to discuss zoning options with the community last month.

Joel Lawson of the D.C. Office of Planning discussed the District’s custom zones, in which specific building restrictions are implemented in a particular neighborhood. Burleith falls within an existing custom zone, R-20, which was developed with neighboring Georgetown in mind. This zone’s 35-foot height limit for new buildings is stricter than the normal 40 feet, among other modifications.

“Custom zoning is nothing more than zoning that’s tailored to your specific neighborhood and tailed towards your wishes,” Lawson said.

Throughout the Oct. 25 meeting, neighbors asked questions about what custom zoning is able to address. According to Lawson, zoning regulations can cover attributes including how tall a structure is, how much of the property it can occupy and whether it can have commercial or residential uses.

However, Lawson told community members that “zoning doesn’t regulate taste.” That kind of oversight would have to be done through a vehicle like a historic district — an avenue Burleith had been considering in recent years, though the citizens association backed off amid community concerns about onerous restrictions and reduced property rights.

The Zoning Commission has the final say on any custom zone proposal. The changes can’t be inconsistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the custom area must have clearly defined boundaries, the regulations should be easy to interpret, and the proposal needs “general, if not fairly overwhelming, neighborhood consensus,” Lawson said.

“The Zoning Commission gets very nervous when a proposal is brought forward and it becomes clear that there is a significant element of the community which is in opposition or questions that change,” he said.

The Office of Planning can help craft the regulations if Burleith elects to move forward, Lawson said.

Most of the Burleith neighborhood was developed in the 1920s. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2016)

At the meeting, the citizens association presented results of a community survey suggesting that residents are currently split on development in the area, which includes about 535 homes. Asked about “the scale and scope of ongoing construction in Burleith,” 46 percent of respondents said they either somewhat or strongly approved, while 43 percent said they either somewhat or strongly disapproved. At the meeting, residents debated over the significance of that difference, and of the fact that 21 percent strongly approve while 25 percent strongly disapprove. About 200 residents responded to the survey.

The survey also asked about residents’ feelings on various kinds of construction, including modern-style houses being built and backyards being converted into parking lots. Residents were also asked about their degree of concern over issues such as the quality of construction materials used and construction noise. The full results of the survey can be found at burleith.org.

“The importance of this is looking at generally where the weight of opinion falls in the neighborhood,” Carole Baume, who helped conduct the survey, said at the meeting. “As we talk about custom zoning, I think you’ll want to think about some of these features and whether custom zoning can do anything about that.”

Some residents expressed concerns about whether and how a vote of the association would be conducted. One resident said he supported allowing only property owners to vote, whereas the survey also included renters.

The meeting also featured remarks from Paul Levy, who discussed the Lanier Heights community’s successful effort to “downzone” the Ward 1 neighborhood into a more restrictive land-use category. However, Lawson said that Burleith’s existing restrictions are strict enough that there’s nothing it could downzone into.