City fights GW, Georgetown

GW and Georgetown universities have a number of positive things in common – similar academic programs, a prime location and famous faculty. But both schools also share attorneys in their similar fights against city-imposed housing and enrollment orders.

In recent years, both universities have embarked on ambitious expansion campaigns – acquiring property, building new academic and residential facilities and increasing enrollment.

The city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment, responding to concerns that the universities are destroying the residential character of their neighborhoods, imposed housing orders in recent years designed to curb GW’s and Georgetown’s growth and encourage them to house students within existing campus boundaries.

The universities, which view the housing requirements as a threat to their futures, have waged numerous court battles in an effort to overturn the orders. GW and Georgetown have used similar arguments in their cases and are even represented by the same lawyer.

For the past two years, GW has fought a housing order requiring it to house 70 percent of undergraduate students – including all freshmen and sophomores – on campus or outside Foggy Bottom by 2002.

Since 2000, Georgetown has taken issue with an undergraduate enrollment freeze, as well as rules that were designed to monitor the behavior of students. The order required Georgetown to operate a 24-hour hotline to receive complaints from neighbors and consult the city before it changed the composition of its student disciplinary office.

Both universities claimed the housing orders and other BZA mandates violated the D.C. Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against students, among other groups of people.

“Both of these are attempts by the BZA to limit the amount of students in the areas (surrounding the universities),” said GW Senior Counsel Charles Barber.

Georgetown’s attorney, Deborah Baum, who also represents GW, declined to comment on her clients’ court cases. Barber said Baum represents both universities because her firm specializes in land use issues and deals extensively with D.C. colleges.

In separate cases, the D.C. Court of Appeals acknowledged last year that while the BZA requirements discriminated against students, certain laws passed before the D.C. Human Rights Act was enacted allowed the BZA to issue the orders.

To overturn the rulings, GW and Georgetown were forced to seek out other legal arguments.

GW’s case focused on what it said was the arbitrariness of the housing order. In September, the court found that the housing conditions “require the University to perform the impossible” and ruled that the University should be given until fall 2006 to meet the housing requirements.

While GW was given only three more years to comply with its housing order, Georgetown, arguing that the BZA was “intruding into the minutiae of university administration,” was able to get its BZA orders repealed.

In December, the court threw out Georgetown’s enrollment freeze, saying it was “not supported by substantial evidence.” It also ruled that the other conditions designed to control students’ improper conduct “go far beyond the proper concerns and expertise of the BZA.”

In both cases, the court referred several issues back to the BZA, meaning both universities will need to iron out their remaining differences with the city.

“Quite frankly, it’s not over, for either one of us,” Barber said. “We’ll both end up having to go back to the Board of Zoning Adjustments.”

Peter Lavallee, spokesman for D.C. Corporation Counsel, which represented the District in both court cases, said the BZA would continue to negotiate with GW and Georgetown and that it “would not characterize them as being uncooperative.”

“The universities have their needs and priorities,” he said.

Barber said the BZA enacted the housing orders to keep GW and Georgetown students out of District neighborhoods.

Georgetown residents, however, said the orders were needed because students generate a great amount of noise and violence, a charged leveled at GW students by some Foggy Bottom residents.

“We believe that the restrictions were appropriate,” said Barbara Zartman, a director of the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

When Georgetown is asked to address residents’ complaints, Zartman said, “the University regularly says it ‘can’t help.'”

Georgetown officials said they have made a concerted effort to deal with neighbors’ concerns.

“We have always demonstrated a commitment to our community … and a commitment to working with our neighbors,” said Laura Cavender, Georgetown’s director of media relations.

GW and Georgetown are not the only schools that have strained relationships with their surrounding communities, said Audrey Williams-June, a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“In general, across the nation, many colleges have agendas that are differing from the community,” Williams-June said.

She said Golden Gate University in San Francisco and the University of Seattle are experiencing similar problems but that in other places, “it often does not get as far in the courts as it has in D.C.”

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