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Home Rule Questions Likely to Dominate Height Act Hearing

When the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last convened to talk about the District’s low-rise landscape, members questioned whether Congress should amend the century-old federal Height Act to give local leaders some leeway on shaping their skyline.

The issue should be treated as a matter of home rule, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton suggested during the July 2012 hearing. The D.C. Democrat asked, “Do you trust the city?”

On Dec. 2, one of Capitol Hill’s leading proponents for greater autonomy for D.C., Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., will chair a follow-up hearing to receive recommendations from the National Capital Planning Commission and D.C.’s Office of Planning on the future of the law.

The two bodies have spent more than a year exploring strategic changes to the law, at Issa’s request, taking into account local economic development goals, federal interests in preserving historic viewpoints, national security concerns and input from developers and residents of District neighborhoods.

Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning will present a vision that borrows from European ideals.

“Our future is more like that of London or Paris, where we’re a capital city, but we’re also a city with its own independent and robust culture and economy and reason for being in the city,” Tregoning told CQ Roll Call.

She will appear before the committee to recommend an approach endorsed by Mayor Vincent Gray that would shift more decision-making about new growth to local control.

NCPC Executive Director Marcel Acosta will also testify, presenting a plan that would leave the Height Act largely intact with a minor change to allow for human occupancy of penthouses. The panel, which represents the federal government’s voice on local planning, considered opening the door to a process that would give the city more say in height limits, but ultimately voted not to endorse those changes.

The Office of Planning adopted that proposal, a more tempered approach than its first draft recommendation, in its final submission to Congress. Tregoning said that recommendation is a “compromise position” for the city. That approach could appeal to Issa, who has predicted his committee’s recommendation will likely fall somewhere between the two proposals.

Differing opinions could make it quite challenging for Congress to determine how to go about amending the law, predicts veteran architect Roger A. Lewis, who testified in support of changing the law during the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s July 2012 hearing.

For a committee “whose qualifications in the field of urban design and planning are minimal,” the two different reports present “a quandry,” according to Lewis.

Lewis, who has been writing about the Height Act since the 1980s, said the “most probable outcome is probably a decision not to pursue it any further.”

The D.C. Council has weighed in on the matter, siding nearly unanimously against the Gray administration’s position. Twelve of 13 councilmembers signed on as co-sponsors of a ceremonial resolution introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson that says the Height Act should not be revised or amended at this time.

The measure cites input from constituents who appeared at the John A. Wilson Building this fall to offer feedback on the Office of Planning’s draft recommendation. According to the resolution, 94 percent of the testimony at the Oct. 28 hearing criticized the recommendations and urged no change.

Tregoning acknowledges that the city has heard a lot of public input from people who don’t want the height of buildings to change.

“That’s a totally valid perspective,” she said. Under the proposed changes, the council, NCPC and Congress would all have the opportunity to veto any new vertical growth.

“Who knows what a future council, what a future mayor, what a future city government or what a future set of citizens might want to do,” she said. “The ability for the city to decide is a long-held principle.”

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