3007 Albemarle Street NW is not like many of its neighbors.
The street address is courtesy of a north-south sliver of land connecting the bulk of the lot to Albemarle Street. At .7 acres, or 30,618 square feet, it is nearly as large as three of the lots directly to the south, or three of its eastern neighbors, put together. This block and much of Ward 3 fall under single family zoning requirements called R-8, which mandate a minimum lot size of 7,500 square feet. 3007 Albemarle is more than four times larger.
When 3007 Albemarle went on the market in March 2020, Paul and Nez Harrison saw potential. It offered a chance to live closer to their young son’s school and his grandmother, a resident of The Essex. They also thought they could finance the purchase and property improvements by splitting the lot in two, and building a home on the new second lot to sell.
The Harrisons closed on the property in June 2020 and set about drawing up plans and getting approvals, which is when this unusual lot began generating an unusual amount of attention from the neighbors.
Many times, as I walked down the street and on the trails, neighbors would stop me and want to talk about 3007 Albemarle, as I live close to the property and was considered an “impacted neighbor.” By the time the Board of Zoning Adjustment heard the Harrisons’ case for a special exception in July of this year, more than 160 exhibits had been filed, many of them letters of opposition and support.
Given the lot’s large size, the BZA needed to weigh in on the subdivision as a special exception to the zoning regulation. The Harrisons also needed approvals from the Department of Energy and the Environment for their stormwater management plan, and from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for buildig a second house and rebuilding the existing house, which is closer to 31st and Appleton Streets than to Albemarle. From the DC Public Space Committee, they would need permits to install an Appleton Street curb cut for a driveway connecting the primary home to the street grid.
The Harrisons also appeared twice before ANC 3F: once to seek support for the Appleton curb cut and the other for the subdivision of their lot. They received unanimous support from the commissioners each time.
Support from the neighbors was not unanimous. Their objections included loss of privacy, stormwater runoff, the use of the pipestem driveway, and the precedent that would be set by increasing the density of this part of the neighborhood.
In an effort to address the neighbors’ concerns, the Harrisons hired landscape architects and stormwater management experts to draw up plans for stormwater infrastructure projects. They also laid out plans for plantings to shield the neighbors’ backyards from the future occupants of the lot’s second home.
Some neighbors were satisfied with the Harrisons’ efforts and withdrew their objections. Three who were not hired attorneys and raised their objections during the July 20th BZA hearing.
ANC 3F03 commissioner Dipa Mehta, whose single member district includes 3007 Albemarle, testified at the hearing in support of the Harrisons’ plans. She, like some objectors, raised precedent. But in this case, she said that if the BZA were to deny the requested zoning relief, it would set a precedent “inconsistent with the District’s goals for density and housing.” (Disclosure: I also testified in favor.)
Mehta attended many meetings and site visits with the Harrisons, their architect and stormwater management consultants, and the property’s immediate neighbors. She laid out the engagement process in detail in a letter of support submitted to the BZA in May.
ANC 3F Commissioner Stan Wall also testified in support of the Harrisons’ plans, in the context of the need for more housing in Ward 3 to prevent displacement in other neighborhoods. Wall, who lives five blocks from 3007 Albemarle, was asked by an opposing neighbor’s attorney to explain the concept of displacement.
Wall did so in this way: If a family with the means to buy a home in Forest Hills or anywhere in DC can’t find a house that suits their needs, they will find something less expensive and make it into what they want. The family who could only afford the more modest house would be displaced or would go on to displace another would-be buyer with even more limited means. More housing is needed, Wall said, at all levels of affordability.
After weighing the testimony, the five BZA members voted unanimously on July 27th to approve the Harrisons’ plans for 3007 Albemarle. Deciding factors included ANC 3F’s report on the review process and support from the Office of Planning. The board members were not persuaded by adjoining neighbors’ concerns about losing privacy or the enjoyment of their backyards.
“It’s difficult to understand how there could be privacy concerns for two houses on 18,000 square foot and 12,000 square foot lots, respectively,” said BZA Vice Chair Lorna Johns. Johns also noted that loss of views is not protected by zoning regulations.
Fellow board member Chrishaun Smith said the testimony about the use of front and rear yards was irrelevant. “Zoning only articulates how a home may be constructed,” he said.
Forest Hills Connection asked the Harrisons and the three neighbors who brought their complaints to the July 20th BZA hearing for their thoughts on the board’s decision.
“We are very pleased with the Board of Zoning Adjustment’s decision, and will remain focused on sustainability and limiting impacts on the community as we move towards construction,” Paul Harrison told Forest Hills Connection.
Only one of the neighbors responded. Mary Lee referred us to the record.