The U.S. Court of Appeals will hear a GW appeal against D.C. zoning restrictions Thursday, including a provision forcing the University to house all freshmen and sophomores on campus. The court will hear appeals from both the D.C. and GW representatives after a district court ruled in a split decision in April.
After failing to receive all of their requests, attorneys for the D.C. Board of Zoning and Adjustment are attempting to reinstate a provision requiring the University to house 70 percent of its students on campus and house 1,500 students outside Foggy Bottom. Meanwhile, GW officials are arguing that zoning restrictions such as the 10-year campus plan, which is currently required of all colleges in D.C. to identify their property holdings and plans, limit “academic freedom.”
GW first filed suit against the city in March 2001 after the BZA attached a series of conditions to the University’s campus plan. The most controversial condition required the University to house 70 percent of its students on campus and provide 1,500 new beds outside Foggy Bottom because four University residence halls – the Aston, City Hall, Hall on Virginia Avenue and Pennsylvania House – fall outside campus plan borders.
In April 2002 U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer lifted the BZA’s housing order, calling it “arbitrary and capricious,” but upheld some restrictions against GW.
The judge rejected the school’s argument that special zoning restrictions such as requiring the campus plan are a violation of its First Amendment right to academic freedom. Oberdorfer defended the practice, noting that universities are different than citizens because they use land “more intensely.”
According to GW’s case brief, the appeal “is not about the regulation of land . it is about the BZA’s regulation of people and institutions.”
“What the BZA really wants to do is limit the number of students living in Foggy Bottom,” GW Senior Counsel Charles Barber said. “We think students should be able to live wherever they want.”
Not all students see the situation in the same light.
“I don’t think housing 70 percent of students on campus is unreasonable at all,” senior Matthew Hargarten said. “Most students enjoy living on campus, but some can’t because there aren’t enough dormitories. I think the University is dramatizing the situation because they don’t want to build more rooms on campus.”
“When you sign the papers to enter GW as a freshman you are, to an extent, giving up certain rights to become part of the University,” sophomore Michael Ivan Fernandez said. “For this reason, I wouldn’t call the order a violation of our rights as much as a limitation of our options.”
The BZA will be represented in court by The Corporation Counsel, a group of attorneys who act in the legal interest of the District. The Corporation Counsel was unavailable for comment.
BZA attorneys previously argued that the spread of GW students off campus has negatively impacted the surrounding community by “displacing permanent, tax-paying citizens.” Corporation Counsel attorneys also pointed out the financial burden to the city because University property cannot be taxed.
“By not offering housing for more students, the University is pitting the students against the neighborhood, and the whole community has suffered,” said Elizabeth Elliot, chair of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Barber said the BZA’s demand would force GW to buy new property and abandon existing dormitories.
The four residence halls outside campus boundaries in Foggy Bottom add up to 1,401 beds.
If the University were forced to house 70 percent of students on campus and 1,500 outside Foggy Bottom, then the off-campus residence halls in Foggy Bottom would go unused, Barber said.
“This case is unique in how far authorities have gone,” Barber said. “I’ve never seen another case where they’ve actually tried to bar students from existing dorms.”
Barber said Thursday’s ruling could decide the future of the University and its students.
“If the BZA has its way, it could impact the type of students we can admit in that they must be willing to live where we tell them,” Barber said. But since the BZA order was already rejected in U.S. District Court, Barber said he is confident it will not be restored.
Despite Thursday’s court date, University administrators say the relationship between GW and the District is a good one.
“There is no doubt in my mind that GW contributes to the economic and societal well being of this city,” said Richard Sawaya, vice president for government, international, and corporate affairs.