Frequently Asked Questions
What is the overall schedule for the Zoning Update?
calendar on this site. The Office of Planning hopes to start public meetings on the overall draft code in fall 2012.
The Zoning Update (formally known as the Zoning Regulations Review, or ZRR) is called for in the 2006 Comprehensive Plan (the Plan), and is frequently described in the Plan as a “comprehensive rewrite.” The Comprehensive Plan lists a wide variety of specific problems that should be tackled during this review, and notes that the review should even consider the creation of “new zones.” As the ZRR has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that the organization of the zoning code itself contributes to difficulty in understanding and using the code. As a result, the Office of Planning (OP) has recommended a reorganization of the code that is intended to make the regulations easier to use.
The current zoning regulations were adopted in 1958 after an overhaul of the original 1920 zoning regulations. There have been hundreds of amendments but no comprehensive revisions until now.
The Task Force is made up of community representatives appointed from all parts of the city by DC Councilmembers, as well as government officials and building industry representatives. The Task Force provides general guidance on the overall process, technical review of the recommendations resulting from each working group, and comment on the draft text.
There are variety of ways to provide input. Over 1,000 residents, community members, and businesspeople have attended our public meetings and given input on the updated code. The Office of Planning will host additional public meetings across the city in the fall of 2012. When the Task Force has finished its review, you will be able to comment on sections of proposed draft text on our Comment Center page. Additionally, you can comment or provide testimony before the Zoning Commission at public hearings on draft text. For exact dates, times, and topics of hearings, please visit the Office of Zoning.
There is a group of Office of Planning staff dedicated to the Zoning Review alone. They've worked in conjunction with representatives from other District agencies, such as DCRA, DDOE, and DDOT. They've also received input from over 1,000 public meeting attendees, the appointed Task Force, and consultants as necessary.(Fall 2012): The public working groups have been completed. These groups focused on developing conceptual changes to the code that were approved by the Zoning Commission. Now, the draft regulations are being written and will be open for public input and public hearings before the Zoning Commission.
The biggest changes will be in how the regulations look:
The regulations will be reorganized to make them easier to navigate, apply, and understand.
Charts and tables to make it easier to find information that’s located elsewhere in the code.
More illustrations to explain the regulations and the types of buildings that they’re intended to shape.
New zone names, which will be consistent with the new code organization, and will make information easier to find by having a closer relationship between the names of the zones and the way information is found. To ease the transition to the new names, a cross-walk table will be provided to link the new and old zone names; for example, the cross-walk table will identify that the R-16-D zone in the new code is essentially the same as the current R-4 zone.
Other big changes include revisions to parking requirements, greatly expanded requirements for bicycle parking, new regulations to promote environmental quality and better stormwater management, changes to the Planned Unit Developments regulations, and amendments to increase walkability and sustainable neighborhoods.
A lot of things are remaining the same, however. There are no major changes to regulations governing building bulk and height. Where changes are being made, in many cases the changes simply codify existing interpretations and informal practices that have developed over time.How are the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission communicating with the public?
The adoption process is explained here.
Absolutely! Members of the public have been involved in the working groups that identified issues and shaped OP’s recommendations every step of the way. For example, OP has modified our initial recommendations for residential side yard, rowhouse lot occupancy, and non-residential uses in residential zones, in response to Task Force and citizen comments. Public testimony at hearings has also informed the Zoning Commission, and sometimes resulted in the Commission directing OP to change its recommendations. For example, public input greatly shaped the proposed parking regulations. OP originally recommended removal of minimum parking requirements for multifamily dwellings in all zones. Based on public concern, the Commission directed OP to retain minimum parking requirements for apartments, except when close to public transit.
To quote Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” A lot of work has gone into identifying problems, proposing solutions, and debating ideas over the past four years. Hundreds of citizens have already contributed their ideas, the Zoning Commission has given us guidance on the types of changes they’d like to see, and OP is producing a draft of the new code.
Still, this is a fluid process, and there are upcoming opportunities to have a meaningful voice. The draft code is being subject to rigorous review by the citizen Task Force and the Zoning Commission, and there will be public meetings and hearings where you can talk about what you like or don’t like. We definitely expect to make changes in response to input from the Zoning Commission and citizen feedback.
At some point—we hope by sometime in 2013—the Zoning Commission will take votes on a final draft. When the Zoning Commission takes final action and an order is published, the new code will be legally adopted. Even at that point, we expect a transition period before the new code actually goes into effect.
Bottom line: changes to the draft code are likely through 2012-2013. Get involved now if you want to have a say on those changes!
The Council appoints citizen representatives to the Task Force that reviews and advises OP and the Zoning Commission. Through its budgetary authority, the Council also funds and oversees the work done by OP and the Commission throughout the Zoning Update process. Unlike in most U.S. jurisdictions, the Council does not legislatively approve the zoning regulations; the Zoning Acts of 1920 and 1938 granted this authority to the Zoning Commission.
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Will I still be able to comment on a project on my neighbor’s property?
Citizens can comment on five major types of project review under the zoning regulations: variances and special exceptions (heard by the Board of Zoning Adjustment); and planned unit developments (PUDs), campus plans, and design review in certain zones (heard by the Zoning Commission). These processes are not going away. In some cases, as in the proposed PUD regulations, citizens will actually have the opportunity for more up-front input on the largest projects.
In some instances, projects that now require relief would become matter-of-right. For example, side yard and courtyard requirements will be less restrictive in rowhouse zones, which may make it easier to build a house or add an addition. This change is being introduced because the 1958 zoning regulations often fail to take into account the character of buildings that existed prior to the regulations. It would be literally illegal to build or reconstruct many of the historic neighborhoods, such as Capitol Hill or Georgetown, that people love today. OP has proposed that property owners should be able to build structures that follow those historic building patterns without seeking special permission.
Will it be easier to find out what the code means, and what someone can do on their property?
That’s the goal! Many users find the current code difficult to navigate—especially if you’re reading it for the first time. OP has proposed a new organization that breaks the code down into a more logical format. The new code will also make much greater use of graphics and maps to explain the regulations, and charts and tables to help find related information located elsewhere in the code.
There will definitely be an adjustment period as people who are familiar with the current regulations get used to the new code. An issue of concern to many citizens is that most zones will have new names. OP and the Office of Zoning are committed to providing clear “translation” tools and a user’s guide to help citizens and property owners understand how the new code is organized, and how it relates to the regulations now in effect.
How will the new code be organized?
See here for an explanation of the proposed organization.
Are “overlay” zones going away?
Since the 1980s, several overlay zones have been added to the regulations to help achieve more localized planning objectives—for example, promoting retail on certain streets, or ensuring that new development proposals do not conflict with a historic district. These regulations have often been quite successful in achieving their goals. Unfortunately, the “overlay” format can create confusion for people using the code, since the overlay regulations are separated from the requirements of the “base” zone.
OP is proposing to resolve this organizational confusion by combining the requirements into a single “base” zone. So the overlay requirements will not go away; they’ll be incorporated into the new zone and easier to find.
In some cases, OP is recommending minor tweaks to requirements in the existing overlays; for example, we might currently regulate a design requirement three different ways when there is no need for that level of variety. OP understands that community members have worked hard over the years to establish the overlay requirements in their neighborhoods, so we’re going to be as transparent as we can in identifying any changes that have been made, and our reasons for suggesting them.
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I've heard that when the new code is adopted, it will be easier for neighborhoods to "customize" their zoning. How will that work?
We’re still figuring that out. Over the past 30 years, the most common way we’ve “customized” zones for particular areas is to create overlays. The process has often been time-consuming and difficult, since we’ve lacked a good template to organize all of the things that can be subject to change. The new code provides a template that we can use as a starting point for making changes that make the regulation more consistent with the existing—or desired—character of a particular area.
After the new code is adopted, OP will develop a process for working with neighborhoods to identify areas that need more localized changes. These might include changes to the height or lot occupancy of buildings, or adjustments to the types of land uses that are allowed. Just as we’ve done in the past when writing an overlay zone, OP will be working with residents, property owners, businesses, and ANCs and other community groups to define the boundaries of the area and determine the appropriate standards for it. This isn’t something we’re interested in imposing on neighborhoods that are happy with their existing regulations; we’ll place a priority on working with neighborhoods that need and want the help. In fact, OP has been working with citizens in Georgetown to develop a prototype of this kind of customized zone--in that neighborhood, citizens surveyed properties and identified potential changes to regulations dealing with the height of buildings, the use of historic carriage houses, and other factors unique to them.
We know many neighborhoods are interested in this opportunity, so it’s going to require some patience. Our first priority is to get the new code adopted; then we can start working with communities to identify areas that could benefit from “customized” regulations.
How will the new code regulate different types of land uses?
The current zoning regulations tell you whether a land use is permitted or not, and whether or not any conditions apply, by specifically listing out all of the hundreds of different types of commercial, residential, or industrial activity that might occur on a piece of property. This system creates a number of problems. One of the foremost problems is that whenever a new type of business tries to locate in the District, we need to decide if it meets the definition of a similar land use already listed in the code, or scramble to update our lists. For example, up until 2012, the zoning regulations did not list a “yoga studio” as a permitted use in some commercial zones. As a result, yoga studios were technically not permitted in those zones.
The new code takes a different approach—one which more and more cities are adopting as they update their own regulations. The new code will organize land uses into a set of broad categories. So, rather than having to specifically list “book store,” “clothing store,” “electronics store,” and so on, we will have a category of “Retail” uses. This does not mean that we will ignore the fact that different uses within a category may have different impacts. For example, if we’re concerned that “fast food establishments” tend to have greater problems with trash, or may want to include a drive-through where it’s not appropriate, we can put specific conditions on the category of “Food and Alcohol Services” to ensure that those impacts are dealt with.
Since we will no longer have hundreds of land uses in long lists, this approach will also make it much easier to find out what you can do on your property (or a neighbor can do on hers). The use categories will be listed in a table, with notes if conditions or special exception criteria apply to some categories. You can find out more about how use categories work by reading this report. (Note: the 2012 Task Force draft and subsequent drafts may include some changes not reflected in this August 2010 report.)
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I’ve heard the new code will create “transit-oriented” zones. What does that mean?
The Comprehensive Plan calls for new zoning regulations that will implement our city’s policy of developing denser, more walkable, mixed-use communities around transit. However, the Plan also cautions that the implementation of transit-oriented development must not be “one size fits all.” Recognizing that discussions about height and building bulk are often very local and neighborhood-specific, the new code does not attempt to increase height or density—with the exception of the densest parts of Downtown, where restrictions on FAR will be lifted.
So, if we’re not changing height or density, what are we changing in parts of the city close to transit? The biggest change is removing minimum parking requirements. Areas that are within a half-mile of Metrorail stations, or within a quarter-mile of high-service bus corridors, are the parts of the city that have the highest rates of transit ridership, and are already seeing decreases in the number of cars per household. As the District grows and changes, these are the areas where we want to provide more opportunities to live a “car-free” lifestyle. The new code proposes that Apartment Transit (AT) and Mixed-Use Transit (MT) zones will have no minimum parking requirements in these areas.
There is one other set of changes that would make the AT and MT zones different than Apartment (A) and Mixed-Use (M) zones. Since “transit-oriented” also means “pedestrian-oriented,” the MT zones will have regulations that focus on making the pedestrian experience safe and pleasant. These include restrictions on driveways and drive-throughs.
Will there be “transit zones” in low-density residential areas?
No. We are proposing some similar changes in areas currently zoned R-1 through R-4, but the changes are much more modest. For example, most uses in the Residential House zones will still have minimum parking requirements. We’re also being a bit more flexible on non-residential uses in the rowhouse zones, but only enough to allow the occasional corner store or similar uses.
How will automobile parking requirements change in the new code?
Residential House zones (currently the R-1 through R-4 zones) will still have minimum parking requirements for most uses, although homeowners will no longer have to provide a parking space. Apartment zones and Mixed-Use zones that are far from Metrorail or a high-service bus corridor will also retain parking requirements. In the Downtown, PDR (industrial), and Apartment Transit and Mixed-Use Transit zones, there will no longer be a minimum parking requirement. Property owners can and will still provide parking in most instances, but the amount of parking will be based on actual need, rather than a regulation. The changes to minimum parking requirements were extensively researched and debated; more information about the rationale for these changes can be found here.
OP’s initial proposal to the Zoning Commission also considered maximum limits on parking, as a way to encourage more reliance on other modes of transportation and to limit the negative impacts of over-parking, including increased traffic and pollution. Setting the right limits on parking has proven to be very difficult; effective limits need to have an impact by reducing the number of parking spaces provided, but avoid unintended consequences such as discouraging grocery stores and other retail. OP heard many concerns from the Zoning Commission, the task force, and various stakeholders about the impacts of maximums. As of January 2012, OP’s draft proposal includes maximum limits only for large surface parking lots.
The proposed code includes several other changes to parking regulations, including changes that restrict where parking can be located, encourage car-sharing, and improve tree planting and landscaping standards for surface parking lots.
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What about bicycle facilities?
Our current requirements for bicycle facilities are very limited. The new code recognizes the increased interest in cycling by requiring bicycle parking spaces for all but the smallest properties (small commercial uses and residential buildings with fewer than 10 units are exempt). Bicycle parking spaces are required for both short-term users (customers and other visitors) and long-term users (bicycle commuters and resident parking). Most large offices and other non-residential uses will also have to provide shower and changing facilities, to make it easier for commuters to bike to work. Because this is new territory for us, we’re going slowly, and allowing property owners some flexibility from these requirements if they can show that they’re promoting cycling in other ways, or that there would be some difficulty in meeting the requirements.
The new regulations also have improved standards for the safety, security, and usability of bicycle parking.
Will the new code provide any limits on “teardowns,” “pop-ups,” or “McMansions”?
Only in a very limited sense. Zoning does not control whether someone can demolish a building; the District’s most effective tool for dealing with that issue is our historic preservation law, which only covers historic districts and other landmarks.
Many residents are concerned about “pop-ups,” which is a term many people use to describe uncharacteristic additions that raise the height of a house above most of its neighbors. The new code would result in changes to the way the height of a building with a sloped roof is measured in the Residential House zones, and this may somewhat restrict the ability to add onto houses that are close to 40 feet in height. Ultimately, the most effective way to prevent inappropriate upper additions might be to rezone a block so that the allowed height is reduced by five or ten feet. Additional neighborhood-specific studies would be necessary to identify such areas. Such studies are not part of this Zoning Update, but could be done in consultation with neighborhoods and property owners in the future.
The “McMansion” issue is also one that requires more neighborhood-by-neighborhood study, since a home that might be just right-sized in one context might appear too big in another. As described below, some of the changes we’re making to side yard requirements should restrict over-building on the widest lots.
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How would the new code change side yard and court requirements in low-density residential zones? (Updated May 31, 2012)
At present, in R-1 through R-4 zones, detached and semi-detached buildings are required to have side yards of at least eight feet. In the rowhouse zones (R-3 and R-4), a side yard is not required, but if one is provided, it must be at least eight feet wide (or wider, if the building is taller than 32 feet). There are also requirements for the width of “court” spaces, which often have an impact on rowhouses with an “el” or “dogleg” floor plan.
These requirements were established in the 1958 zoning code and have often made it difficult for homeowners to put additions on older homes, many of which were built with smaller yards.
OP studied buildings in these zones throughout the District, and found a great variety of side yard widths—calling into question the appropriateness of the 8-foot requirement. In our initial draft released to the Task Force, OP proposed a “sliding scale” approach that would have allowed homes on narrow lots to be as narrow as five feet in some instances.
However, we received many public comments which indicated that this greater flexibility would be undesirable in many neighborhoods. As a result, OP has dropped this proposal from the Zoning Update, and is now proposing to stick with the current 8-foot side yard requirement for detached and semi-detached zones.
In R-3 and R-4 zones, “el” or dogleg spaces adjacent to rowhouses would have to be at least 5 ft. wide, which is consistent with the character of many of Washington's historic rowhouse neighborhoods. Narrow side yards and courtyards would no longer count toward lot occupancy, removing incentives to fill in these small spaces.
Would any proposals for the new code allow “increased density,” compared to existing zoning?
Lots of people ask about density. First, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. Some people are interested in population density, which is the number of people (or homes) in a given area. Others want to know about building density, or the bulk of a building compared to the area of the lot it sits on.
Some of the proposed changes would allow minor increases in population density. For example, OP has proposed to make it easier to include an accessory dwelling unit (also known as an accessory apartment or “granny flat”) within a home, or in an accessory building. This change will make it easier to provide housing options for small households (often singles) who need less living space, or for a family to care for an older relative while still providing a degree of independence.
As for building density—measured in the zoning code as Floor Area Ratio (FAR)—the new zoning code does not propose any changes in total building bulk. The only exception to this is in certain Downtown zones, where the District is making major efforts to attract new jobs, households, and services.
There are some other proposed changes that may allow the same total bulk to cover slightly more ground, but the limits on the total FAR will remain the same in the new code. Think of the FAR of a building like a block of modeling clay: the clay will always occupy the same volume, but it can be pushed or pulled into shapes that are wider or narrower, taller or shorter.
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Are there any changes in how the height of buildings will be regulated? (Updated June 1, 2012)
Well, first, let’s clear up one misconception—we’re not proposing to increase the allowed height of buildings.
For the most part, we’re clarifying the rules about measuring building height. For buildings with more than two dwelling units, the issues include where to start measuring the height of a building, when what may appear to be two buildings is actually one building (or vice versa), and what elements can be put atop a roof and how big such roof elements can be. OP’s proposals on these and other issues evolved through multiple drafts. You can see the latest draft regulations here (general regulations) andhere (specific to Residential House zones), and find earlier versions and more background material here. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs will also be publishing its interpretation of how the federal Height Act affects the heights of city buildings and how they must be measured.
In the Residential House zones, the proposed zoning continues to limit the maximum height of buildings to 40 feet, as has been the case since 1920. We are also revising the draft proposal to keep the current limit of 3 stories in these zones.
OP’s original proposal included two technical changes regarding how the height of buildings is measured in low-density residential zones. The first change dealt with the point to which height is measured. In the current regulations, height in these zones is measured to “the ceiling of the top story.” This rule has allowed some property owners to build large attic spaces above the 40-foot maximum, and still technically be within that limit. This has created situations where houses have been constructed that are much taller than their neighbors, potentially detracting from neighborhood character. OP has proposed to change this rule, so that on buildings with a pitched roof, height will be measured to the midpoint of the slope. This is a method of measurement common in most modern zoning codes. It allows the peak of a roof to poke a little bit above the height limit (consistent with the intent of the current regulations) while ensuring that the greater mass of the building remains below the limit (which the current regulations do not ensure). OP continues to believe this part of our proposal is an important component of protecting neighborhood character, and is a needed correction to the current zoning regulations.
The second proposal, which OP has withdrawn, was to remove the reference to “3 stories” as part of the height limitation. OP originally proposed this change because this rule has at times been “gamed” by property owners who claim that a part of a building is an “attic” or “cellar,” and therefore does not count against the 3-story limit. However, many citizens pointed out that, even with the 40-foot limit and the more restrictive measuring point, removing the 3-story limit could allow a builder to pack a fourth story in under the height limit—again, potentially detracting from neighborhood character and resulting in homes that are out of context. On balance, OP agrees that the 3-story limit provides an important stopgap against overly large houses, and should be retained.
A fact sheet providing further explanation of height measurement rules can be found here.
Would the new code allow increased lot occupancy?
As of January 2012, there are no proposed changes that would increase by-right lot occupancy in residential zones.
An earlier draft of the new code did suggest one change that would allow greater lot occupancy under some circumstances, but that proposal has been withdrawn. Basically, the proposed change would have guaranteed a minimum building footprint on small residential lots, even if the limit on the percentage of lot occupancy had been exceeded. OP proposed this change as a way to encourage modest, but adequately-sized houses on lots that the zoning regulations make it difficult to build upon, and to make it easier for owners of homes on small lots to build additions. After hearing concerns from the Task Force and public on this issue and researching it further, OP decided not to pursue the idea.
Finally, in mixed-use zones, OP has proposed that the current limits on residential lot occupancy be removed. Right now, zoning does not limit lot occupancy on the floors of a building that have non-residential uses. The limit on residential lot occupancy was originally instituted to ensure some “open space” around residential floors in these zones. However, the lot occupancy limits are redundant, since rear yard setbacks, courtyard regulations, and Building Code restrictions also ensure open space around residential floors. In many instances, the lot occupancy limitations actually make it harder to convert the upper stories of older mixed-use buildings into residential space—something we’re actively trying to encourage.
The Zoning Review held a series of public meetings over four months on the topic of sustainability in DC's zoning. As a result of those meetings, wide-reaching recommendations for changes were conceptually approved by the Zoning Commission. Those recommendations will touch upon almost all aspects of the zoning code, and can be seen here.
The Green Area Ratio (GAR) is a new regulatory tool that sets requirements for landscape and site design that meet goals for stormwater runoff, air quality and reductions in the urban heat island effect. The GAR score can be thought of as a ratio that measures the environmental benefits of the “green” elements on a property, compared to the area of the lot.
The Green Area Ratio is aimed at achieving environmental performance by allowing a user to pick among optional elements in order to meet an overall GAR score. For example, a property owner in a zone with a GAR requirement of 0.3 could choose among a variety of elements including trees, rain gardens, other landscaping, or a green roof. Each of these elements has a different point value based on its environmental benefit. A property owner could pick any combination of elements that work best for the specific property, as long as the points add up to a score of 0.3.
Single-family homes are not required to meet the standards of the GAR; The GAR will only apply to properties that require a Certificate of Occupancy, such as commercial, industrial, mixed use, and multi-family.
If the GAR applies to you as a property owner, we encourage you to read this explanatory report and the proposed regulations. The proposed requirements are meant to ensure that developers and owners improve the environmental performance of their properties and buildings, but they are not intended to be onerous.
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Are there other rules that would require “green space”?
OP has proposed a new requirement for a certain percentage of “pervious surface” in low-density residential zones. Under current regulations, the lot occupancy regulations limit the area on a lot that can be covered by a building, but there is no requirement that the uncovered area must provide any kind of “green space” or allow rainwater to percolate into the ground. In effect, you can pave over your entire yard. We’ve come up with a rule that would ensure that a certain percentage of the lot area in these zones be covered by grass, gardens, pervious pavers, or other surfaces that allow stormwater infiltration. While this rule could be met by a green roof, we think it will also provide an incentive for many property owners to keep the rest of their property “green.” In some cases, this may limit the total amount of building coverage on a lot.
Will the code allow non-residential uses in residential zones?
Yes – but within limits and conditions.
The current regulations already allow many non-residential uses in residential zones. Public schools, churches, recreation centers, and many other uses are allowed by right in all residential zones. Hospitals and museums are allowed by right in R-4 and R-5 zones. Other uses, such as certain types of day care facilities, some utilities, and non-profit organizations, may be allowed by special exception after a public hearing.
OP is proposing a few changes to non-residential uses in the Residential House, Apartment, and Apartment Transit zones. In some instances, the proposed changes will be more restrictive than the current regulations. For example, under the current regulations, museums —no matter how large—can be allowed by right in a zone that’s predominantly devoted to rowhouse living; The new regulations would limit all Institutional uses in Residential House zones to no more than 10,000 square feet in floor area, and place concentration limits on them. However, we've heard that our initial proposal created other loopholes for Institutional uses, and we're going to revise the draft to be more restrictive. Specifically, we're proposing to use a process that's worked to limit the impacts of institutional uses in the Sixteenth Street Heights neighborhood, and apply those rules in low-density residential zones across the city.
In other ways, the proposed regulations will be less restrictive. Many neighborhoods were originally built with corner stores and other low-impact neighborhood services incorporated into the fabric of the residential blocks. In the District, this happened most frequently in blocks that were constructed with rowhouse developments, since this type of neighborhood provided sufficient residential density to form a customer base for the occasional small shop here and there. The current regulations propose to make this sort of arrangement legal again, under very limited circumstances. In rowhouse zones, certain non-residential uses would be allowed, but only on the ground floor, with limited size, hours of operation, and number of employees, and limits on the total number of non-residential uses that can occur within a 500-foot radius. Retail uses and any establishment selling food would have to be on a corner, or in an older building that was originally built for commercial purposes.
Of all the changes proposed, this is one that gets a lot of people talking, and we’ve heard a variety of opinions. Be sure to let us know if you think we’ve got this proposal right, or if we’re being too restrictive, or not restrictive enough.
How would the new code treat Accessory Dwelling Units?
There has been a lot of interest in recent years in expanding options to provide Accessory Dwelling Units (also known as ADUs, accessory apartments, or “granny flats”) throughout the city. Currently, the zoning regulations allow accessory apartments in R-1 through R-4 zones, but only under very limited circumstances. The accessory apartment must be within the main building, and it must adhere to a variety of restrictions. The restriction that creates the biggest hurdle, for many homeowners, is the requirement to appear before the Board of Zoning Adjustment and ask permission through the special exception process.
The existing zoning regulations also allow a homeowner to provide a small apartment in an accessory building (like a garage or carriage house), but only if it is “sleeping or living quarters of domestic employees,” and only in R-1 zones. This actually permits more density than is desirable in these single-family zones, since a homeowner could have three units on their property (their own living space, an accessory unit, and the domestic quarters).
OP has proposed that ADUs should be allowed by right, either inside the primary building or in an existing accessory building, in the current R-1 through R-3 zones. An ADU in a new accessory building (or in an addition to an existing one) would require special exception reivew. In the current R-4 zones, ADUs would not be permitted—but these zones already allow two-unit homes (called “flats” under the current code)—so there is no need to permit an accessory unit. However, in order to accommodate the strong interest in many rowhouse neighborhoods in (re)converting old carriage houses to provide living space, OP is proposing to allow the second unit in those zones to be located within an accessory building.
In all cases, even when an ADU is allowed “by right,” there would continue to be a number of conditions that restrict the size of the unit, ensure owner occupation of the property, and protect the privacy of neighbors. Our proposal for ADU regulations can be found here. A fact sheet on the topic is here.
Update (October 4, 2012): We have heard two main concerns raised with our proposals for accessory dwelling units.
The first is the size of the building footprint for an ADU, when it is located in an accessory building. OP's first draft stated that the upper limit on the footprint of an accessory building (whether it contains an ADU or is simply used as a garage or shed) is 900 square feet. This limit comes from our existing regulations. However, there are other rules in the current code (including lot occupancy limits) that create practical limits on the size of these buildings. Nevertheless, some citizens have raised the question of whether a 900-square foot accessory building is simply "too big." As a result, OP is now proposing that the footprint of an accessory building (no matter how it is used) should be limited to 450 square feet--the size of a two-car garage. The ADU would be limited to 900 square feet of floor area, meaning that it could occupy both floors of a two-story accessory building.
The second issue is the process by which ADUs would be permitted. We have proposed that ADUs should be allowed "by right" (i.e.., a property owner can construct a building and occupy it by getting approval at DCRA's permitting center, rather than having a public hearing). By limiting the size, height, and number of people, along with a host of other restrictions, we have assumed that we can control the impacts people are most concerned about, without the need for a lengthy and expensive public process. Nevertheless, some citizens have suggested that ADUs--particularly when placed in a separate building--may have unforeseen impacts on neighbors, and that these impacts are best reviewed through a public hearing. By the same token, other citizens have suggested that our proposal is too restrictive, in that we've proposed to continue reviewing ADUs by special exception in some cases. After careful consultation with several neighborhood groups (including in rowhouse neighborhoods), we have responded to the latter concern by proposing to allow existing carriage houses and garages to contain an ADU by-right, as long as no additions to the building are made.
Documents related to individual subject areas or working groups, rather than the code as a whole, are located under “Areas of Interest” on the left menu of this website.
I have a question that wasn't answered here! How can I get an answer to it?
You can submit questions through this link on our website. Please allow for a one-week response time; we're focused on writing the draft code, so we might not be able to answer your question right away.