D.C. board rules for FoBoGro

Ending months of contentious debate, the District’s Board of Zoning Adjustment upheld the certificate of occupancy for the new Foggy Bottom Grocery Tuesday.

The store’s certificate had been appealed by the West End Citizens Association, led by Secretary Barbara Kahlow, who testified at the hearing that the store’s document was improper because it allowed the new owners to sell groceries from all three floors of the building. The previous owner had only sold goods from the main floor, Kahlow said.

But in a 4-0-1 decision, BZA members upheld a previous D.C. Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs decision to issue the certificate. One board member, Shane Dettman, was absent from the hearing.

“It was very exciting for us because it finally showed very clearly we are operating within the laws, we are doing things correctly and we should move forward,” said Kris Hart, owner of the grocery. “That’s what the community has been saying, that finally the BZA, an independent agency, has said, we’re licensed to do what we’re doing.”

Hart said the legal battles cost him $50,000 and jaded him as a D.C. business owner.

“If I continue to run into these kinds of obstacles, I can’t imagine why I would want to spend so much money and go through so many headaches in order to open up businesses that are fit for the community and are going to be great for everyone affected by the business,” Hart said.

“The building, before I took it over, was run-down, it was disastrous, and I worked hard to make it a community place that people can appreciate as the corner store,” he added.

Kahlow and WECA had argued that the store historically operated only on the main floor of the building, citing personal experience in the neighborhood and sworn testimony from Meseret Bekele, who sold the business to Hart.

“I went into the old store many times,” Kahlow testified. “It was a one-story operation.”

However, a pretrial report from the Office of the Attorney General found various certificates of occupancy dating back to 1958 that listed all three floors, which the board ultimately ruled showed the store had historically used the entire townhouse as part of the business, with the basement as storage and the top floor as offices.

Kahlow also raised the question of whether the store could legally sell prepared foods, saying that the store’s panini press violated BZA regulations.

“DCRA has been duped and we don’t want the BZA to be duped,” Kahlow added.

But board members cited an April 2009 case that ruled it was within a grocery store’s right to sell prepared foods and dismissed the argument.

After more than four hours of testimony, board members declared themselves ready to vote, and board member Meridith Moldenhauer argued in Hart’s favor, citing DCRA testimony and the previous certificates as proof that the new certificate was valid.

“The appellant’s arguments really don’t provide any adequate support for their case,” Moldenhauer said of WECA’s appeal. “The fact that both witnesses could not provide specific personal testimony. weakened their case.”

Kahlow declined to comment after the vote.

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