Dear PoP – How and Whether – to Oppose a Request for a Variance?

“Dear PoP,

I noticed this weekend that the new owner of a standard two-story rowhouse on my block in Columbia Heights has requested a variance from DCRA. The sign in the window states that he’s requested a variance from 1) the minimum lot area requirements, 2) the lot occupancy requirements, 3) the court requirements, and 4) the off-street parking requirements. He wants to turn what’s apparently now a “12-unit rooming house” into a “3-unit apartment house, with a new third story addition.” The property has been vacant for some time, has not been used as a rooming house in the several years I’ve lived nearby, and is described in the DC real property tax assessment database as a 4BR, 3 bath, 10-room, “multi”-type building. Being cynical, I read the DCRA announcement as “build an ugly pop-up out of keeping with the rest of the block, build a rear addition right to the property line or as close as they’ll allow, and create three crappy condos that’ll eventually go into foreclosure because someone didn’t learn their lesson in the housing bust.” Our block has come a long way in the last few years, from being anchored at all four corners by vacant/boarded-up houses to having all but one of those–and many others–re-done.

From DCRA’s website, I see that I’d have to file an application for party status at least 15 days prior to the hearing, since I’m not the ANC. Does anyone know what happens after that? And what are valid grounds for opposing a variance? The PoP commentariat seems to hate badly-done pop-ups as much as I do, but I imagine “it could be ugly” isn’t enough to convince DCRA to disapprove the request. Selfishly, I’d prefer not to have 3-6 more cars trying to find parking on my block, as we can almost always park right in front of our house now, but realize that’s a petty complaint. I could make a decent argument about increased stormwater runoff, since our basement floods if the alley overflows. But that’s about all I’ve got.

I don’t necessarily oppose the project, either. I’m not going to be a jerk and hold things up just because I can. I think I just want more info about what’s to come and it seems like participating in the DCRA process might be the only way to get that. What do your readers think?”

Has anyone ever opposed a variance? If so, what were your experiences like? Is this the best way to combat ugly pop ups?

33 Comment

  • Who wouldn’t want 3 legitimate units instead of a 12-room boarding house?

    Just saying, be careful what you wish for…

    • +1. I think the original poster is being a pain in the ass. I live next to a woman who runs an illegal boarding house. I would rather live next to a 4-unit apartment with stable tenants. But whatevs. I believe in karma. we get what we deserve.

  • ah

    The variance has nothing to do with the aesthetic or, it appears, the third story addition. So you’re not directly combating it.

    Of course, the cynical DC approach is to oppose it on the ground available in order to provide bargaining leverage to exert design influence.

    As for the process, the applicant bears the burden of justifying the variance, and the board hears evidence from them and other parties and the ANC, and then makes a decision, which can be appealed.

    I would contact the applicant to obtain more information. If they stonewall, then sign up for party status. Or they may reassure you. And if they don’t then you can raise your concerns, which may lead the board to require stormwater management and perhaps some amount of parking.

  • you know.. you’re kind of nosey. If you pulled this crap in the country you’d probably get shot for trespassing.

  • I wrote this to PoP. Responding in order:

    @Anonymous 1:38 – it’s not being used as a rooming house. It’s vacant. But I completely agree with your general sentiment, which is why I’m only thinking about this. I don’t want this project to fail; I just want it to not suck and to not adversely affect my house.

    @ah – you’re right, the pop-up isn’t part of the variance request. I’ve tried finding any info on the applicant, but have come up with nothing and no way to contact him. He can’t be living in the property in its current condition, yet that’s the only address I can get. On one hand, it’s not a developer with a crappy track record; on the other, there’s no record whatsoever…

    @realist – How is looking into a process where DCRA INVITES public participation nosey?

    To reiterate – I don’t want to be a jerk. I’m not going to hold this up for no real reason. I’m just asking questions at this point.

    • ah

      Contact DCRA–they should have the variance request. Or at least a contact point on it.

    • For some reason I can’t seem to find his info, but here was his selling agent: who I’m sure could put you in touch with your new neighbor.
      I’m sure it’d be much easier for you and everyone if you contacted him first before jumping into his permits. Find out if you are really opposed to what he’s doing.
      I mean, it’s not really fair to oppose it on grounds that 3 people will live there, I don’t think. That’s a little silly. But surely you can talk to him about how if he tries to uggo up your block with a bad pop-up, you’ll be happy to get involved in a more formal way.
      Good luck! Be neighborly!

    • I agree with everything you’re doing and think everything you suggest sounds prudent and reasonable. Looks like you could call DCRA and see to whom notice # 18115 was issued.

      Quick story: the rowhouse attached to mine was renovated into multiple units 4 years ago, and I think it needed a variance for height/occupancy restrictions. I wish I’d had the foresight to contest it, as after they changed the roofline between our places for a pop-top and used inadequate flashing, which led to a lot more water coming down on my roof, which caused damage AND they dug out the basement and removed structural beams, which led to a 2-inch gap between the homes where previously there was none. (I’m just waiting for that to become the next water problem!) This is your first, best opportunity to get some standing if you have legitimate concerns, and after the damage is done, it’s too late.

      Good luck. Follow-up with your experience if you go through the process.

  • A church behind my property sought a zoning variance to make some buildings taller and bigger. I wrote a letter that expressed concern, and the variance was denied (I have no idea if my letter was a factor). The applied again the following year, I wrote another letter and cited my earlier letter, and the variance was approved. Go figure. There hasn’t been a whiff of construction, so maybe it was a long-term plan or a short-term plan that fell victim to the RE bust.

    If you are serious, though, you’ll do more than write a letter: you will attend the BZA meeting where they discuss the request. And be prepared to have the meeting time change a few times.

  • I am not familiar with DC processes, but in order to request a variance in most places, there has to be a “hardship”. The request for variance isn’t to bend the rules, but to make the case that there is some unique characteristic of the property that prevents the owner from utilizing the property to the fullest extent allowed, and therefore he/she needs to be granted an exception to overcome the restriction or circumstances.

    If you have cause for concerns, you probably can make a better case if you keep that in mind.

    • make sure you don’t confuse a variance with a special exception – they’re two different things. this sounds more like a special exception to me, not a variance.


      BZA is authorized to vary or modify any part of the Zoning Regulations where, because of an exceptional situation, the strict application of the Zoning Regulations result in “exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship” upon a property owner. Such hardship may result from physical characteristics which make the property unique or difficult to use. To approve an application for a variance, the BZA would have to find that granting the request would not cause substantial detriment to the public good and would not be inconsistent with the general intent and purpose of the Zoning Regulations.

      Special Exceptions

      A Special Exception may be granted for a particular use of land or for a particular building. In general, a Special Exception is a conditioned permitted use in a particular zone district; that is, the use is permitted provided certain specific criteria are met. The Zoning Regulations set out standards for the BZA to consider when deciding whether or not a particular special exception use should be allowed.

      • ah

        I’m not sure this is correct. Special exceptions I understand to be for, say, a commercial use in a residentially zoned area. Or perhaps a rooming house in an area zoned residential.

        The types of requests listed relate to zoning variances–i.e, lot occupancy etc.–not to the proposed use, which seems to be the same (although in a lesser) as the existing boarding house.

  • I agree with toasty, this sounds like a special exception, not a variance (though property law is not my specialty).

    Either way, to get party status to appear and oppose, you are required to do more than just say you want party status.

    The requirements can be found here under section 3106.2:

    Also the rules governing Special Exception and Variances can be found here:

    and here:

  • Get involved, find out what you’re neighbor is planning – you live there, you have the right, and if you don’t you may regret it. But don’t be a jerk, just talk to them and ask them what they’re going to do (make sure they don’t snow you, ofc). it is a time worn principle that in a city you have a say in how things are done in your neighborhood. If you want to abrogate that right, that’s your call. But you’d be stupid to do so without even knowing whether or what the issues are or might be.

  • This is a use variance; it looks like it is on BZA’s schedule for 10/19/10:

    As others have stated, contact your ANC and try to talk to the person requesting the variance to find out what’s up. Also, check the party status rules to make sure you live close enough to have standing. Some of the citizens associations are pretty involved in zoning issues, so they might be interested in this case, too.

    Applicants have to submit pretty extensive info for variances; variances are allegedly the toughest approval to get. If you are really unhappy with the plans and the applicant won’t respond to your concerns, you need to become an opposing party in the case. it is a little easier if the ANC is on the same side as you. Expect to spend the entire day at BZA. Their proceedings are quasi-judicial, so you will be under oath, you can submit evidence, question and cross-examine witnesses. It is an exhausting and time-consuming process.

  • I encourage any and all people to oppose these types of buildings. When you split a single family home into multiple units they never look good for more than 6 or 7 years, then they become rental property that continues to fall part until it becomes a slum. Look around Columbia Heights, its exactly what caused the neighborhood to become such a crime ridden dump in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. It doesn’t matter tht it was a 12 room boarding house, that wasn’t good for the area either.

  • I was part of a 2 party group opposing a variance and we sort of lost. Sort of as in we didn’t stop it but we stopped it from being worse than it could have been. It didn’t help that our ANC didn’t communicate with us until the chaos of the ANC meeting, despite many tries to get to her. We were able to slow things down by pointing out the poor notice and were able to change the 4th floor addition from a gabled roof to a mansard roof that better blends in. The BZA board made some demands using some of the research and evidence we provided.
    Several years ago the community opposed a variance where a fellow wanted to squeeze in several tall and skinny (less than 18 ft wide) buildings on a small plot of land that was already having drainage issues. That was a more organized group headed by a lawyer with time to devote to it. The developer had a lawyer too.
    So my advice, get a coalition of neighbors, sell them on the idea of a better alternative. Try to sell the developer on that alternative idea.

  • Thank you, everyone. I appreciate all of the ideas and feedback. I sent an email to our ANC rep and will get in touch with DCRA to see if they can give any contact info for the owner (and will see if his RE agent will pass on my info if that fails).

  • A good rule of thumb is to mind your own business and let people do whatever they want unless it infringes on your property.

    “looking ugly’ doesn’t infringe on you or your property. Neither do extra vehicles on public roads.

    Bitching from people like you is exactly why this city is lacking in affordable housing.

  • Your starting point is your ANC rep (not the whole ANC). Variance applications must go to the ANC, which can advise for or against allowing the variance.

    If your rep isn’t responsive, then go to an ANC meeting (and consider voting for somebody else as your ANC commissioner).

    There are specific conditions that must be met *before* a variance, or special exception, is granted. If you choose to oppose this development, then do so on grounds pertinent to those specific conditions. “I just don’t like it,” isn’t an effective argument at the BZA. “It doesn’t meet the legal criteria,” is.

  • Dear PoP,
    I am the new owner of 3603 13th St NW and am offended by these wild accusations made by cynical bloggers about me and my plans for my house. I am sorry these same neighbors did not attend the ANC hearing on the matter, for then they would have seen the designs and heard my plans to invest in the neighborhood.
    To briefly dispel any misconceptions of myself or my project that I have read in these blogs, let me clarify that 1) I am NOT a developer, but a regular homeowner; 2) these will NOT be condos, but rather apartments (one of which shall be occupied by me; 3) I have spent months designing a three story brick house that will aesthetically fit in with its surroundings and will NOT be a “pop-up” eye sore (as others, unfortunately, have done on parallel blocks); 4) as I do not drive, it is rather unlikely that the other two units shall have more than three vehicles combined; 5) I choose to leave the rooming house vacant because I believe it would not contribute to the community; 6) with the planned solar panels, green roof, tankless water heaters, grey water system, green garden and rain barrel, I shall not only have the least storm-water runoff on the block, but will have the most eco-friendly, green house in Northern Columbia Heights.
    For months I have worked on a design to integrate my house not only into the block, but to contribute to the neighborhood as well. Instead of erecting a single family house and maintaining illegal rentals (as 90% of Washington does), I am going through the extra administrative mile of red tape, delaying construction for months, and increasing the costs by thousands, all so I follow the rules and do it the right way. I am proud to report that the ANC overwhelmingly approved my plans and supports my project.
    I have also met with my immediate neighbors about my project and have been greeted only with support, so it hurts to hear uninformed bloggers jumping to quick conclusions about me solely based on a single variance notification in a window. I am always available to show the designs to anyone wishing to see them, and if you do not find me on the front stoop, please leave contact information in the mail slot. All I ask is that you do not judge me before you have met me.


    • Richard – I only just saw this. I wrote the email to PoP and do, very much, appreciate your response above.

      As you correctly note, I didn’t attend the ANC meeting and was unaware, until now, that one had been held. My husband and I both work full time and we have a young child, so we’re not always on top of those types of events. Had I heard your description above, I wouldn’t have emailed PoP. As it is, I was unable to find any other info about the project and my calls/emails to our ANC rep have, so far, gone unanswered. I was unable to find any contact info for you, either, and have never seen you at the property in question. PoP and the commenters are often a great neighborhood resource for obtaining more info, so that’s where I turned.

      As you also noted, there are some very badly done projects nearby. That’s what we worried about and why I admitted in the original email that I was being cynical about the plans for this property.

      I’m very glad to hear that you’re proved me wrong and think that everything you are planning to do will be a great addition to the block. I sincerely apologize if you feel as though you’ve been publicly maligned; that was not my intent.

      If we happen to see you at the property some day, I’ll introduce myself and apologize in person. Until then, welcome to the neighborhood and to the block. We wish you well with the project.

  • Sounds great!

    I went door to door when I renovated my house and had everyone on the block sign a petition in favor when I got a variance (I also sweep the sidewalks, street and alley; keep up the tree boxes for those who can’t, etc – but that’s besides the point). I think Richard is a good example of someone who’s dream/vision gets hindered due to other’s misconceptions. Having said that, I think if everyone got some sort of letter explaining his idea, most, if not all would be ecstatic!

    Wish you the best of luck as I’m about to embark on my next project!

  • HAHAHAHA… That just made my day Richard!

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