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Issa Wants to Go Further on Height Act

One of the District’s chief advocates in the House gave some unsolicited guidance to Mayor Vincent Gray and the D.C. Council on Wednesday.

“We want to trust you; we want you to trust yourself,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “We want to give you every piece of home rule possible, so long as it does not impact the specific, federal responsibility we must put forward.”

In late 2012, aiming to give the city’s elected officials more of a say in the shape of new development, Issa suggested local and federal planners put their heads together to explore possibilities for modifying the 1910 Height of Buildings Act. The end result, approved by the committee on Wednesday, was a modest change granting human occupancy of the penthouse areas atop many buildings, clearing the way for rooftop pools, parties, gardens and balconies that can rise up to 20 feet above current height limits.

“I want to make it clear today — I would like to have gone further,” Issa said, adding that it was “beyond his imagination that a city that so wants to take more responsibility in every area would find itself  . . .  saying, ‘Don’t give us further authority.’ ”

Gray asked that the District be empowered to raise the city-wide height limit — generally 130 or 160 feet — through its comprehensive plan and zoning process.

But the D.C. Council unanimously opposed those changes in a November resolution saying the Height Act should not be revised or amended.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson indicated he was acting on behalf of residents and preservation activists from across the city who did not have enough specifics on where heights would be raised or by how much. They feared that if the Height Act was changed at the time, the District’s “unique skyline and human scale will be lost irretrievably,” Mendelson told Congress.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said she shared Issa’s “wonderment” that the city had the chance for more home rule and seemed not to want it. After 24 years in Congress, the Height Act debate is the first time Norton has seen city leaders reject increased autonomy from Capitol Hill, but she had a different takeaway from the debate.

“It wasn’t that the city didn’t want it,” she said. “It was an indication that … the D.C. public does not always trust its own public officials to maintain the residential quality of the city.” She then heaped praise on Issa for helping to sort out the disagreement between feuding branches of city government — a situation that “embarrassed” the congresswoman.

Norton identified the source of the opposition as a handful of citizens, “I can name them all,” she added, who “guard the Height Act with their lives.” She indicated she was open to exploring a broader change to the century-old law.

Looking toward the future, Issa said, he hopes the city will view the changes approved Wednesday as an opportunity. He also suggested pilot studies of the impact of allowing whether more vertical growth should take place on a few hundred acres on the edge of the city in an area such as the Anacostia Waterfront.

Issa suggested the folks who object to the height increase “would not object to a blighted area being developed in a way that would be beneficial to the income of the city and also to the residents.”

Congress could take more action on the Height Act in the near future, Issa predicted, saying there was a possibility that he or some other Oversight chairman “will be able to further enhance the skyline through legislation.”

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