Foggy Bottom’s leading community group voted last Wednesday to hire an attorney specializing in zoning laws to unscramble GW’s campus development plans and detect potential violations of city law.
The Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission – which advises city agencies on issues ranging from traffic to safety and liquor licenses – allocated $2,000 to task a lawyer with determining if upcoming construction projects are in line with both the University’s 2007 Campus Plan and with city regulations for land use planning.
GW received an initial go-ahead for future development when the campus plan passed, but each individual project must obtain second-stage approval once more detailed blueprints are drawn up. The commission automatically becomes involved in each zoning case the University puts forward in the neighborhood.
Alumnus and commissioner Asher Corson said the lawyer would offer perspective on projects and their zoning filings to the city, independent of University officials’ briefings to the ANC. Corson said the lawyer would not sue GW upon noting a potential discrepancy in the documents – as Planned Unit Developments, or spots outlined in the campus plan for later development, are subject to ANC consideration under D.C. zoning laws.
“I do like the idea of getting an outside person to tell us what we’re really being asked,” Corson said. “I think that for us…it’s just overwhelming for the commissioners to go through hundreds of pages of zoning documents and figure out if GW changed something.”
Corson pitched the idea to obtain legal counsel to evaluate the University’s projects at an ANC meeting in November, upset with GW’s public announcement to bulldoze six properties along Pennsylvania Avenue.
A sleek office building with 275 parking spots will replace the cluster of restaurants – including Froggy Bottom Pub, Mehran and Thai Place – and the office space leased by Kaiser Permanente next door.
Corson, a staunch critic of major campus development efforts, said the plan’s focus is purely commercial and abandons the University’s academic mission. He threatened at the time to resign if the other commissioners did not support his request, later postponing the decision after a tie vote.
University officials keep local residents up-to-date with campus projects through briefings at neighborhood meetings. Corson said the commission also consulted a lawyer during GW’s campus plan approval process in 2007 but he has not heard of any other commissions that did so.
The D.C. Zoning Commission weighs ANC support or opposition to a project when reviewing cases for approval.
Commission chair Florence Harmon, whose constituency covers a large swath of campus, said an independent attorney who is familiar with the city’s laws would provide valuable insight on the zoning process.
“If [GW comes] in with something that just violates every zoning regulation known to man and is against every precedent, I’d like an attorney to tell me that,” Harmon said. “If they come in and we don’t really have a strong case, but there are some questions we should ask, I would like a zoning attorney to tell me that.”
She added that using the commission’s operating budget to hire a lawyer would cover about 10 hours of work.
“This isn’t a war chest to go fight GW. You can’t get very far with $2,000,” Harmon said. “But we do want to work collaboratively as much as we can.”
Britany Waddell, GW’s director of community relations, said GW’s relationship with the community is reliant on transparency, and the University would work with the legal counsel if the commission finds it helpful.
“The decision to retain an attorney on this or any other application is entirely up to the ANC, and we do not feel it will negatively impact our on-going dialogue,” Waddell said.
Harmon said the commission has not yet tapped a lawyer and is unsure when it will begin seeking counsel on projects.
This article appeared in the February 21, 2012 issue of the Hatchet.