George Clark is the former President of the Forest Hills Citizens Association, former Chair of the Federation of Citizen Associations, Chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and is presently representing the Federation as member of the citizen Zoning Review Task Force, which started meeting in November 2007. George has been to almost all of the 28 meetings since its inception. The Forest Hills Connection asked him to explain the Tree and Slope Overlay, on which he worked, and comment on Arlova Jackson’s response to Ken Terzian’s questions about the DC Office of Planning (OP) zoning rewrite:
The Forest Hills Tree and Slope Overlay (TSO) was crafted by the Zoning Commission over a five year hearing process. All of the overlay area is east of Connecticut Avenue. Its purposes are to preserve the natural topography and mature trees in the neighborhood, prevent adverse impact on open space, parkland, streams and environmentally sensitive areas, and limit permitted building and impervious ground coverage. The overlay area has significant quantities of steep slopes, stands of mature trees, and is located at the edges of stream beds, large undeveloped lots, and areas subject to terrain alteration and tree removal.
The overlay itself is in two sections that govern two separate areas of Forest Hills. The whole overlay area subjects all lots to a maximum occupancy of 30% (instead of the usual 40%), impervious surface coverage of 50%, and side yards total of 24 feet, with a minimum of 8 feet on one side. The squares adjacent to the park and some immediately across from those with large lots are also subject to tree cutting restrictions, a 9,500 square foot minimum lot size (instead of 7,500), and building restrictions if the slope is at a 25% grade or has highly erodible soil.
The tree cutting restrictions are very detailed and specific, but in summary preclude removing healthy trees greater than 75 inches in circumference, or more than 3 trees with a circumference of 38 inches, or removing more than 25% of all trees with a circumference greater than 12 inches. The penalty for violating these provisions is the inability to get a building permit on the property for 7 years. Special exception relief is available in delineated circumstances.
Ms. Jackson (who is leaving OP later this month) does not mention that OP proposed eliminating the penalty provisions, which are identical in the other TSO overlays, because the staffer doing the review didn’t think they were needed. Although OP promised to reinstate the penalties last January, this has not yet appeared in writing.
Ms. Jackson says in response to Ken’s question that Forest Hills has many lots that are only 50 feet wide and therefore the overlay’s 24 foot total side yard provision should be changed everywhere, even though the large majority of lots are wider than 50 feet. But more importantly, the Zoning Commission took this into account when it enacted the TSO. It removed squares 2028 and 2029 (those bounded by Linnean Terrace, Broad Branch Terrace and 33d St) from the overlay, as well as the squares closest to Connecticut Avenue. Thus OP is reversing the considered five-year judgment of the Zoning Commission to cover a relative handful of properties.
Moreover, the average lot size in the overlay is over 12,000 square feet. If those lots were all 50 feet wide, they would be over 240 feet deep. This is not the case.
If OP thinks some areas should not be subject to the 24 foot total side yard provision they should point them out instead of trying to overrule the result of a five-year hearing with evidence.
More importantly, OP acknowledges that the 24-foot restriction would not apply to additions or expansions. But it would apply to tear downs. So by narrowing the side yards, OP is encouraging larger houses after tear downs, whether on 50 or 200 foot wide lots. Do you want a mini-mansion built 5 feet from your property line?
Since Ms. Jackson answered Ken, OP has agreed to go back to 8 feet, but not the 24 foot total for the overlay. At no time in the dozens of meetings that OP has had with the Task Force did any citizen propose narrowing the side yards. This is part of OP’s philosophy that DC should be “higher, tighter and denser” everywhere, no matter what the citizens think.
What else has OP stepped back from due to citizen pushback? OP originally proposed that commercial establishments, such as dry cleaners, could reside on any residential block, as long as there was no other within 500 feet as a “matter of right” – meaning such a conversion needed no zoning change and neighbors could not protest. It took the task force two years to change OP’s mind on this. Like the other changes described here, this has not yet appeared in writing although, I believe, it will.
Until March, under OP’s proposed changes an owner could have converted their house to a museum, a private club, an office building for a non-profit (including legal services), or a fraternity house (with no parking requirement) without neighbors having any right of protest. Once again the change hasn’t yet made it into writing.
Until recently, OP proposed that you could build a two story, 1800 square foot “accessory dwelling unit” with a balcony overlooking your neighbor’s yard and no parking without approval from anyone. They have backed off again after months of protest, but once again the change does not yet appear in writing. The latest proposal is that the maximum size would be 900 square feet, with a special exception required. Internal accessory dwelling units would be allowed as a matter of right.
OP has also decided not to follow its original recommendation of eliminating the three story limit in Forest Hills (and other low density zones) while keeping the 40 foot height limit. Once again, push back from the Task Force and citizens led to this change.
At the June 5, 2012 Task Force meeting, OP said it would propose changes to its previous position that would have eliminated minimum parking requirements everywhere. Until language is issued, it is hard to see what those proposals will mean, but parking minimums should return for the residential zones.
Finally, OP decided on June 5 that it wants separate hearings on several proposed changes, before the entire rewrite process goes to the Zoning Commission. These include parking, accessory dwelling units, measuring point for height (OP agrees its earlier suggested change did not work, but new language has not been proposed yet), and green area ratio. This is a change from the previous proposal that OP would do city-wide outreach before any changes would be finalized. Notice on these issues will come out this summer, so if you want to participate, watch for updates here.
And watch for updates on the Forest Hills listserv.