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House Oversight Committee to Consider Modest Change to Height Act

After much public and official rancor over the century-old law governing the height of buildings in the nation’s capital, a House panel is looking at making one minor, largely noncontroversial change to the law.

After a spat between Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, which had a prominent member of the House wondering if the District could handle more of a stake in shaping its skyline, city leaders have reached an agreement on a provision involving the human occupancy of penthouses.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee convenes Wednesday morning to consider the modest change, proposed by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. Under Issa’s bill, the law would be amended to allow people in D.C. to occupy single-story penthouse structures that are no taller than 20 feet above the level of the roof.

“We’re comfortable with what Chairman Issa is proposing,” Mendelson told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday. “It’s very discreet and consistent with not only the decision of the [National Capital Planning Commission] but the agreement that the mayor and I had.”

The penthouse provision is one of the only changes local and federal planners agreed on after a year of studying the future of the law. The NCPC and the District’s Office of Planning both recommended allowing people to occupy existing and future penthouses, with certain restrictions, including a provision to protect sight lines to the Capitol, White House and other federal buildings.

It’s also a much smaller change than what Gray asked for in a recommendation from the city’s Office of Planning that was submitted to Congress in November. Gray’s administration recommended D.C. be empowered to modify building height limits through its comprehensive plan and zoning process. It told the panel in December that the change would help D.C. meet increased demand for housing and office space, as projected by the Office of Planning.

Mendelson submitted dueling testimony to Issa’s Dec. 2 hearing, asking that the law be “left alone,” as 12 members of the council and preservation advocates had requested.

After the hearing, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., requested that Gray and Mendelson put their heads together and try to reconcile.

Norton heads into Wednesday’s markup “very pleased” that they resolved their differences, according to spokesman Daniel van Hoogstraten. She will sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

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