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DC Zoning History

Washington was one of the first cities to develop a comprehensive zoning ordinance after New York broke the ground in 1916. This began with the Zoning Act of March 1, 1920, which established zoning and the Zoning Commission in the District.

The Zoning Commission consisted of the three Commissioners (the Board of Commissioners) who divided up the various departments in the District and ran the City. In addition, two other statutory members of the federal government were also appointed, the first being the officer in charge of the buildings and grounds of the District of Columbia (which in 1934 became the officer in charge of the National Park Service) and secondly, the Superintendent of the US Capitol Building and Grounds (which became the Architect of the Capitol.)

1920 Zoning Ordinance

The original 1920's ordinance had three types of controls with a map depicting each one. The first map dealt with height districts, with regulations regulating the heights within those districts. The second set of maps divided the city into use districts—four of them originally (residential, commercial one, commercial two and industrial)—with additional regulations later added. The last set of maps showed area districts depicting lot occupancy.

Zoning Act of 1938

Zoning Commission - The next major legislative step was the Zoning Act of 1938. The Zoning Enabling Act established the police power of the Zoning Commission to regulate the height and bulk, lot occupancy of buildings, location of uses, and to divide the Districts into zoned districts. Commissioners were empowered to promulgate regulations in accordance with a Comprehensive Plan designed to lessen congestion in the street; secure safety from fire, panic; promote health and general welfare; provide adequate light and air; prevent undue concentration of population and overcrowding of land; advance health, safety, transportation, prosperity, civic activity; provide protection of property, and further economy and efficiency in provision of public services.

Further, the Act provided that:

  • zoned districts should be suitable to the character of the respective precincts and should encourage stability in districts and in land values;
  • the Zoning Commission is required before adopting any amendments to hold a public hearing with at least 30 days notice;
  • a favorable vote of at least a full majority of the total membership is required, not just of those participating;
  • the building height limits of the Act of 1910 cannot be superseded in zoning;
  • one cannot build a building without a building permit in the District;
  • the executive is the enforcement arm (DCRA); and
  • federal public buildings are exempt from zoning controls, but the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) shall review and regulate such buildings.

The Board of Zoning Adjustment - In 1938, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) was created to be the release valve of zoning and to deal with unusual situations of property and regulation. The five-member panel was established to include one member each from the National Capital Planning Commission and the Zoning Commission (or a staff designee), and three Mayoral appointees who have established residence in the District for at least three years (including at least one homeowner). Operating under general rules provided by the Zoning Commission, the BZA could adopt its own supplemental rules of procedure, and open its meetings to the public. Further the act authorized the BZA to act in three basic areas: variances, special exceptions and hear appeals of administrative decisions.

1950's Comprehensive Plan

The next major change in procedure came in the 1950's Comprehensive Plan. The plan suggested that the text and map of zoning regulations needed a complete overhaul and called for the creation of modern comprehensive districts for all parts of the city. It also noted that large areas of the District were poorly zoned for existing use and future planning objectives, creating the danger of incompatible building types and excessive population density. Further, the plan recommended doing away with a majority of commercial strip zoning in favor of business centers with greater depths of lots for major modern buildings. Other recommendations included the establishment of approval standards for off street parking and loading, and special treatment for large-scale residential developments of more than 10 acres.

Lewis Plan of 1956

The 1950's Comprehensive Plan was the impetus of the Lewis Plan of 1956, in which Harold Lewis, a New York planning and zoning consultant, recommended a major zoning overhaul. In his new plan, Mr. Lewis expressed concern that the BZA's actions infringed on the legislative authority of the Zoning Commission; they were adopting so many variances and special exceptions that they were actually acting as the Zoning Commission. The Lewis plan proposed:

  • a unified set of zoned districts based on the 1950's Comprehensive Plan,a floor area ratio (FAR) system - a density device that would provide better control over specific density than the existing system, as well as design flexibility for the architects and developers, and
  • stricter parking requirements.

With the exception of the parking requirements, which were approved in 1956, the Zoning Ordinance of 1958 adopted most of the Lewis recommendations. The ordinance created the SP district, which established transition zones around the edge of the central districts. It also adopted new regulations addressing light and air in building standards. Most importantly, it established the present system of basic zoning districts. Today, the ZC and BZA are still operating under the basics of the Zoning Ordinance of 1958 with a number of amendments.

District of Columbia Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1967

In 1967, the "Commissioner" and the DC Council were established, abolishing the Board of Commissioners. The Commissioner, the Chairman of the Council and the Vice-Chairman of the Council replaced the Board of Commissioners on the Zoning Commission; the officer in charge of the National Park Service (or staff member) and the Architect of the Capitol (or staff member) remained on the Commission.

Home Rule Act 1973

Under the Home Rule Act, it was established that three local members appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Council would replace the Commissioner and Council on the Zoning Commission; the officer in charge of the National Park Service (or staff member) and the Architect of the Capitol (or staff member) remained on the Commission.

Office of Zoning Independence Act of 1990

In September 1990, the City Council established the Office of Zoning as an independent agency responsible for providing professional, technical, and administrative staff assistance to the Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment for purposes of assuring uncompromised decisions.

2006 Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations Rewrite (ZRR) of 2016

The next major change occurred as an outgrowth of the 2006 Comprehensive Plan which called for a wide-ranging review of the Zoning Regulations (ZR16). The review of the Zoning Regulations of 1958, as amended, began in 2007 with the Zoning Commission holding two roundtables and concluded on January 14, 2016 with the Zoning Commission voting unanimously to adopt text to revise the DC Zoning Regulations and approve map amendments to implement that text. It was the first time the Zoning Regulations and Zoning Map were comprehensively revised since 1958. ZR16 was published on March 4, 2016 and became effective on September 6, 2016.