GW wins short-term court victory

A Thursday court ruling will give GW an additional four years to comply with a city order that requires the University to house 70 percent of undergraduates on campus. The order also prevented GW from constructing nonresidential facilities such as a new business school building.

The order initially required GW to house 70 percent of its undergraduate students – including all freshmen and sophomores – within city-defined campus boundaries by August 2002. The order also mandates that GW provide an on-campus bed for every student after enrollment reaches 8,000. However, the University now has until 2006 to meet the requirements, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled.

The three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment’s right to enact the housing requirement but said the order’s initial deadline was “arbitrary and capricious and constitutes an impermissible exercise of the Board’s authority.” The court said giving GW until fall 2006 to comply with the order would afford it adequate time to build on-campus housing.

University officials said the ruling could allow GW to break ground on nonresidential facilities such as the new business school building, which has languished in legal purgatory since the order’s enactment. In October 2002, GW held a ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the $56 million facility, Ric and Dawn Duques Hall, which is slated to be erected between Funger and Madison halls.

University officials said they were pleased with the ruling even though it did not rescind the housing order.

“It gives us time to come into compliance and to build additional on-campus housing,” said a senior administration official who asked to remain anonymous. “The (original) time frame was onerous and we’re pleased the D.C. Court of Appeals has agreed with us.”

GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said GW has yet to make a decision on whether to proceed with construction of the business school building because it is still studying the ruling.

“It would appear at first blush that we ought to be able to go ahead with the business school,” he said.

The administration official said the University still needs to secure a final building permit from the D.C. Zoning Commission, which he expects will happen within the next few weeks.

“We need the business school for academic reasons now,” he said. “We want to get started as soon as possible.”

Susan Phillips, dean of the School of Business and Public Management, declined through a Management, declined through a spokesman to comment.

The official said GW is still discussing whether to appeal the decision to the court’s nine-judge panel in an attempt to get the housing order repealed.

Peter Lavallee, a spokesman for the D.C. Corporation Counsel, which represents the District in court, said the ruling was a victory for the city because it upheld the BZA’s right to restrict GW’s growth. The BZA is an independent agency that serves as an arbitrator in zoning disputes.

Lavallee said the city would not object to the construction of a new business school.

“As long as they’re willing to abide by the plan in 2006, we don’t have any objection to what the University does in other areas,” he said.

Thursday’s ruling is the culmination of a series of federal and District court battles GW has waged to repeal the BZA order, which it originally contested in U.S. District Court in April 2001.

In that instance, the court ruled that while the BZA is allowed to place restrictions on GW’s growth, the housing order placed burdensome requirements on the University. The split decision paved the way for an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which upheld the order in February 2003.

The University, using a two-track approach to fight the order, then went to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which rejected GW’s argument Thursday that the order violated students’ rights under the D.C. Human Rights Act. The act prevents discrimination based on race, gender or matriculation.

GW has also appealed the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide in October whether to take the case.

Foggy Bottom residents said the ruling undermines the authority of the BZA and will not curb the growth of GW’s undergraduate population, which has swelled by 53 percent since 1998.

“GW just seems to increase their enrollment year after year, and by 2006, there’s no telling how many students there will be,” said Barbara Spillinger, vice president of the Foggy Bottom Association. Trachtenberg said the ruling allows GW to build more on-campus housing, which he said was always the University’s intention.

Responding to criticism from some Foggy Bottom residents, Trachtenberg said, “I don’t make any claims to sainthood, but the devil we ain’t, either.”

The senior administration official said he “can’t say” whether GW will come into compliance by 2006 but added that the University is doing everything it can to build on-campus housing facilities.

He said the Ivory Towers, a 710-bed facility slated to open in fall 2004, and a proposed 530-bed residence hall on F Street would help GW come into compliance with the order but might not bring it to the 70 percent mark. Last fall GW housed 56 percent of its students within city-defined campus boundaries; housing figures for this year were unavailable as of press time.

The court temporarily stayed an order requiring GW to house all freshmen and sophomores on campus. The BZA will be making a decision within the next few months on whether the University can house freshmen in the future. Last year, the University flirted with housing upperclassmen at the Hall on Virginia Avenue – which the BZA considers to be off campus – but relented after receiving a torrent of complaints from students who said HOVA is unsuited for upperclassmen.

Lavallee said the city might appeal the decision to allow freshmen to live in HOVA.

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