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District Leaders Trying to Hash Out Differences on Height Act

At the urging of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., District leaders are talking out their differing opinions on the future of the Height Act.

Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, two Democrats who have come to opposite conclusions on whether Congress should make any changes to the 1910 law, plan to continue discussing the subject, their offices have confirmed.

Norton sent a letter to both officials requesting they put their heads together, reconcile their differing opinions and try to come up with a consistent answer to present to Capitol Hill on the best outcome for local interests.

Gray’s administration has recommended that D.C. be empowered to modify building height limits through its Comprehensive Plan and zoning to meet increased demand for housing and office space, as projected by the city’s Office of Planning. It has built the case for autonomy as an issue of Home Rule.

Mendelson argued for preserving the Height Act to protect the city’s unique, horizontal skyline and “human scale,” in testimony submitted to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week. He pointed to citizen opposition to new vertical development, and claimed voting rights, budget autonomy and statehood are more important to Home Rule than “a right to change heights.”

During the Dec. 2 hearing, Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., mocked a D.C. Council resolution opposing changes to the Height Act as the equivalent of saying, “Please don’t give me the authority. I can’t be trusted.”

Norton wants D.C. to present a unified outlook on its future to Congress, and does not believe the differences are irreconcilable. She requested Gray and Mendelson engage with other city leaders to try to reach a consensus on Height Act recommendations. The goal of the talks would be to reach an agreement on whether there should be changes, and if so, how they should be accomplished.

“Serious conversations among city leaders should be able to take into account the understandable concerns of some residents who want more certainty against undesirable changes,” Norton wrote in her Dec. 4 letter to Gray and Mendelson. “Considering our continuous efforts to defend and expand home rule, I caution against indications that local elected officials cannot reach agreement on matters affecting the city’s own governance.”

The committee also received a report from the National Capital Planning Commission, which represents federal interests in District planning issues. The NCPC recommended leaving the federal law largely intact.

Issa has vowed that his committee will not close discussions on the Height Act without full consideration of the issue, but that might not happen until 2014. The House is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Friday.

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