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Issa Predicts Nuanced Position on Height Act

The National Capital Planning Commission has retreated from a recommendation that might have given rise to some taller buildings on the fringes of the District, reopening the divide between federal and city planners on changes to the Height Act.

After a yearlong study conducted jointly by the NCPC and the District, at the request of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., federal planners declined to endorse Mayor Vincent Gray’s interest in eliminating the federal height limit completely in areas outside the Pierre L’Enfant-planned city or a process that would have allowed for slow, targeted change.

NCPC sent its final recommendation to Congress Tuesday night, suggesting there may be opportunities to change the Height Act outside the downtown core, but additional study is required to understand the impact on federal interests.

Issa predicted Wednesday that his committee’s recommendation will likely fall somewhere between the two proposals.

“We don’t expect to have a radical change or a significant change to the Height Act as a result of the study, but we do expect to empower the parties to bring forth future plans,” Issa told CQ Roll Call, adding that he had not yet reviewed the final NCPC report.

The congressman, who has been a big proponent of giving the city more control over its planning process, said D.C. should be able to do anything it believes is in its best economic interest, as long as it does not work to the detriment of federal government interests.

Issa said there is a “very good chance” that his committee, likely to meet in December, will come out with a “nuanced position that is between the two that empowers the city to do more, but recognizes that there have to be some controls.”

Earlier this week, NCPC had recommended language that would have allowed the city to write up detailed plans for areas where it wants to see buildings taller than the federal limit — generally 130 feet or 90 feet — to be included as an amendment to its next five-year Comprehensive Plan. As a safeguard, the D.C. Council, NCPC and Congress would have had the ability to veto any changes.

But opponents feared that a line in the NCPC report calling on Congress to “amend the law today” was too strongly worded and after three hours of public testimony heavily biased against a taller D.C., the commission voted 7-3 to strip that portion.

The final report now suggests that there may be some opportunities for “strategic change in areas outside the L’Enfant City.”

The District sent its own draft recommendation to Issa in September, and another report to Congress could be forthcoming.

“We are still considering our options,” Tanya Stern, chief of staff of the D.C. Office of Planning, said in an email.

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