Office of Zoning Testimony of Spenser Balog
Chairman Phil Mendelson
Committee of the Whole
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
March 6, 2020
Subject: Casey Trees Comments: Performance Oversight for the D.C. Office of Zoning
Dear Chairman Mendelson,
Casey Trees is a nonprofit with the mission to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of our Nation’s capital. We achieve this by planting and maintaining trees, advocating for the protection of trees and green space, and work with developers to promote sustainable development and green building techniques.
The decisions and precedents set by the Zoning Commission (ZC) and Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) greatly influence development in the District. As reviewing bodies, they are responsible for enforcing environmental protection and sustainable development policies to ensure that all eight Wards remain the vibrant communities we know them to be. However, the ZC and BZA can only make decisions within the confines of the laws and regulations that govern construction in the District. The newest draft of the Comprehensive Plan strongly emphasizes building resiliency and sustainability and focuses on updating the Zoning Code as a way to do this. We ask the Council to be expeditious in updating the Zoning Code once the new Comprehensive Plan is approved. Development in the District is inevitable and we at Casey Trees strongly believe that development and environmental protection can go hand in hand. The implementation of new resiliency requirements will ensure that all new developments and redevelopments are done with sustainability and climate readiness in mind.
However, we recognize that these changes will take time. Because of this, we urge the Zoning Commission and BZA to place greater weight on proposed developments that exceed existing sustainability benchmarks during their review. If we are to reach our climate and sustainability goals, we need to work proactively and prioritize the approval of developments that are going beyond their legislated requirements and are being built to withstand the inevitable impacts of climate change.
We also ask the Council to introduce a text amendment to the existing Zoning Code that would create a new zoning designation for parks and open spaces. All of the District’s existing planning maps, including the updated Generalized Policy Map and Future Land Use Map, have designations for parks and open spaces. However, the existing Zoning Code only considers parks and open spaces a permissible use. Most of the District’s parks and open spaces are zoned as residential or mixed use, putting them at risk because it is completely within the right of the landowner to develop this property, without any community engagement or compensation, as long as it complied with the restrictions of the existing zone. Even though there are currently no plans for these areas to be developed, our parks and open spaces are too important for their protection to be left to chance.
Whether by-right or as a Planned Unit Development, there are a multitude of permitting and approval processes that developers must go through before they can begin construction. They must get approval from UFD to remove Special trees, DOEE for environmental protection or remediation plans and the Offices of Zoning for Zoning Code compliance. This division of responsibilities is important because it allows subject matter experts to review the various pieces of a development plan, but it can also lead to agencies being siloed in their decision making. When this happens, the different recommendations may end up not being harmonious with one another. We ask that the Office of Zoning increase their collaboration with DOEE and DDOT when reviewing development plans to ensure that all proposed developments are in compliance with all District plans, policies and regulations. We recommend this be done by having monthly review meetings between designated agency members. Having reoccurring meetings will ensure that the final approved plan will not just meet requirements but support and forward all District development goals set out in Sustainable D.C. 2.0, Climate Ready D.C., Resilient D.C. and the D.C. Comprehensive Plan.
We ask the Council to update the PUD regulations to require every Community Benefits Agreement to include a sustainability or resiliency component. It has been our experience that developments remove a significant portion of existing trees and vegetation during the construction process, only to replace them with less productive natural resources. Our natural resources are our greatest asset in the fight against climate change, and while the new development may meet existing standards by doing this, they are not replacing the total environmental value of the natural resources that were lost. Adding language that urges developers to focus on sustainability and resiliency will allow us to protect existing trees and green space from the start of the planning process and help us ensure that, when a grove of trees or undeveloped open space must be removed, the entire value of it, not just the stormwater retention benefits or permeable features, is replaced.
Planned Unit Developments happen infrequently and can be a long and drawn out. Because of this, it can be hard for community members or Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to navigate the process and know what they can and cannot ask for. Therefore, we urge the Council to support Councilmember Nadeau’s bill titled Development Expertise for ANC’s Amendment Act of 2020. This bill adds a new department to the Office of the ANC specifically to support ANCs during the PUD negotiating process. ANC Commissioners, while elected officials, are voluntary in their position and may not always have the expertise or experience to feel fully confident working with developers on Community Benefits Agreements. Having this additional support would help the ANCs work through the problems that come with participating in the PUD process and rule on outcomes that provide the best public benefits possible.
There is a limited amount of undeveloped space in the District. Because of this, we need to be deliberate in our decision making so as to ensure thoughtful growth that not only provides for our city but protects our environment. By updating the Zoning Code to reflect the District’s resiliency and sustainability priorities and supporting ANCs in their decision-making capacity as advisors in the PUD process, we can make sure this happens.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on the D.C. Office of Zoning’s 2019 performance. If you have any questions regarding our comments or would like further explanation, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-349-3480.
Sustainable Development Associate