Dear PoPville – Zoning Loop Hole?

Photo by PoPville flickr user johnmcochran2012

“Dear PoPville,

I have lived in my house in Brookland for five years. My home was originally on a double lot that was subdivided before I purchased it. The empty lot next store was in a tax sale mess plus I was told it was too small to build. 5 years later a neighbor bought the lot. He has since found a family to purchase it and they are trying to building a house. It has taken forever to get permits but within the past few days they passed zoning. The Lot is not big enough for a detached home so zoning is allowing the builder to build “half a semi-detached house” Pretty tough to understand. Well in order for it to be a semidetached one wall is projected to be built right on my property line. Less then ten feet from my house, there will be a 3 story house. There will be no way in my mind to build this without coming on my property. The builder knows I’m upset with the situation so he has little to no contact with me.

Have you heard of anything like this or seen it happen before?

Just to make it clear in case the family that is purchasing the lot happens to see the post. I by no way shape or form want to hurt their family and future home. But just want to protect my home and family. I am trying to talk to the family because the builder will not about my issues. My home is a stand alone home, and the other adjacent home is as well. So this “semi-detached” will never have another side. Seems crazy! I have asked the city what I am supposed to do because there is no way they can either dig a foundation for pour a slab with out being on my property. Plus there will be no way for the owners of the house to ever access this side of the house without having to come into my fenced yard. I just don’t want it to come off like I want to hurt the buyers. So just wanted to see if anybody has had a similar situation.”

42 Comment

  • Please hire a land use attorney right away.

    • ah

      +1. You have 60 days to appeal the issuance of the permit (with some limited exceptions) based on a claim of a zoning error. Don’t wait – this is too big an issue to handle yourself with significant ramifications for your house and its value.

    • you should appeal the issuance of the building permit. sounds like you are in an r-2 or r-3 district. I believe the key provision is 11 DCMR Section 405.3, which provides:

      405.3 In R-2, R-3, R-4, and R-5 Districts, when a one-family dwelling, flat, or multiple dwelling is erected that does not share a common division wall with an existing building or a building being constructed together with the new building, it shall have a side yard on each resulting free-standing side.

    • Yeah I’m not one for NIMBYs but this sounds like a world of problems OP is in for if they do nothing until its too late.

  • I’m confused. You say “there’s no way in my mind to build this without coming onto my property” but you don’t appear to know if that’s actually the case. If the property line is accessible from the other plot, why would they have to come onto your land to dig out a foundation? Can’t the builder just work from the other side in towards the property line?

    You may say that you don’t want to hurt this family or their future home, but you pretty obviously don’t want the house they’re planning to build built. Delays, changes, attorney’s fees: those are all going to cost them and negatively affect the new family’s well-being.

    I agree with the previous poster; you’re going to need an attorney to sort this out.

    • ah

      For example, how would they paint the wall facing OP’s house without coming onto OP’s property? Even if they reach down with long rollers from the roof, they are (technically) trespassing.

      To the poster below, implied easements of the sort you suggest are rare and not likely to arise in a situation like this.

  • pablo .raw

    What seems strange to me is that the whole zoning process was approved without letting you know about it so that you could show up to the hearings. Even if the neighbor was going to just install a fence on property line, they need to notify you and add a letter of consent to the building permit application.

    • This is probably the correct question to be asked.

      My guess is (and I apologize for guessing OP) that they WERE notified but either didn’t open the letters or didn’t bother to go down and deal with it. Welp, this is where things to when you don’t get involved and make your voice heard!

  • are you sure it’s fully permitted yet? You can look this up online. Part of the permitting process involves getting your consent for the construction. Zoning won’t require this, structural will.

  • the urbanization of dc continues…..

  • If I recall correctly, they may be able to access your property in a limited way when building in a zero lot line situation, which this has become with the rezoning. But talk to a lawyer who practices in the field – I’m not your lawyer and didn’t exactly set the world on fire in real estate law class. I’d imagine you’d want surveys, etc to avoid changes to drainage and runoff, and settling or cracking of your foundation, among other things.

  • I don’t really understand what the problem is.

  • Any building or digging that occurs within the required setback from your property would require your permissing. If this is the case and you have not given permission, your should be able to g et the work to stop.

  • Check out this recent NY Times article

  • Cut and past this URL ( for a recent NY Times article addressing the issue. Some good advice in there, the best of which is “hire an attorney” (but you already knew that). ; )

    • I’ve just finished reading that article. OP, please read it (if you haven’t already) — there are numerous parallels between the cases the article describes and your own situation.

  • I am really not understanding the issue.

    What do you mean they won’t be able to dig a foundation or pour a slab without coming onto your land? The lot obviously accesses the public ROW, has street frontage. They will build it from there.

    Depsite your protestations. it sounds like you were fed a line of bull about the lot being too small, and you simply assumed nothing would ever happen with the lot, and now you are upset that something is going to happen.

    Everyone who lives in a ROW house in DC has a exterior portion of their home that they can’t access without crossing onto their neighbors property, so thats nothing new.

    • ah

      OP has a single family detached house, but it’s in an area zoned to allow semi-detached and perhaps row houses (R-2 or R-3). Evidently the adjacent lot has enough room to build a “semi-detached” house right up to the lot line, whereas a detached house could not be located there because of side lot line requirements.

      It’s a peculiarity of DC zoning – you have to have either an 8-foot side lot or a zero-foot side lot in some places. Not sure I’d call it a loophole-just what it is.

    • “Everyone who lives in a ROW house in DC has a exterior portion of their home that they can’t access without crossing onto their neighbor’s property, so that’s nothing new.”

      I think this is accurate only for houses with “bump-outs” in the back. (Or in front, for that matter.) I live in a rowhouse and I can’t think of any area of the house that I couldn’t access without going on a neighbor’s property.

  • “Just to make it clear in case the family that is purchasing the lot happens to see the post. I by no way shape or form want to hurt their family and future home.” It sure sounds to me like the OP doesn’t want these people building next to them. Which is fine, but let’s not kid ourselves. You’d rather have any empty lot next to your home then another house just feet away. As buildable property becomes more scarce, zoning officials will make exceptions that they normally wouldn’t have in the past and some lots that were previously “ not buildable”, will have buildings put on them. UrBaNsPrAwL

    • I read it that he doesn’t want them to lose what they paid for the lot, and would be fine with them building a home–but he doesn’t want a freestanding house built ON the property line.

    • Thank you all for the comments, I know my story was vague, and that’s because I was mostly interesting if anyone else dealt with a similar situation. Many of the questions in the comments I have asked time and time again. I didn’t want to bore people with details. But some more information

      I received a letter saying non structural work was to be done on the property line.
      I was able to see the plans and the home is a stand alone colonial style with roof pitched directly over my property.
      It is a wood construction house that will have vinyl siding. Not a brick party wall that can be erected without crossing the property line
      The house is a proposed slab on concrete which will need forms to be poured in. If the cement pad has to be on the property line then where will the forms go.
      My home has a full 100 year old brick basement. Less than 9 feet away of the proposed slab. Within 10 feet means it can be structurally affected. “Zone of influence is what its referred to”

      I can go on and on. But that’s not my point. To those who say I simply don’t want a house there. OF COURSE who doesn’t want an empty lot next to their house but guess what I don’t own it, so there is nothing I can do about it. So rather than having a fenced in over grown lot why not a nice new house with friendly neighbors that will only help the block look better. I understand the situation is strange and the lot needs to be at least 40′ to have a detached house. So the district is allowing a semi-detached to be built directly on the property line which can be built on a 30′ lot. Yet another house will never (can’t) go against it. If the house was simply built 2 feet off the property line, they would have access to the side of their house. Be allowed to have windows (openings not allowed in a party wall) and would be 10 feet from my foundation therefore not affecting the structure of my home.

      I know a lawyer would be the best direction to go, but as some have said that would not only cost me money, but waste time and money for the family trying to build their home. The city has too many larger issues to deal with than such a small issue.

      I was told directly by DCRA this situation is written as illegal and legal therefor builders build “half a semi-detached” to get around it, a loop hole

      Thank you all for your concern, comments and question. gotta love Popville

      • I would make sure that the wall at the property line is designed to be an appropriately rated fire wall. The vinyl over wood construction sounds a little suspicious to be within 10 feet of your home.

      • I would not trust what DCRA tells you about what the law allows since, in my experience, many DC agency employees have no idea what they are talking about. I also would not rely on any the information posted here (as much as I love POPville). The best way to protect your rights here is to hire an attorney who, as an initial matter, will be able to tell you exactly what your rights are. That will be very valuable information. You can decide from there whether you want to take any further action, but if you delay finding out exactly what your rights are, you may end up waiving your ability to object and be left with very limited options. I understand why you are hesitant to get a lawyer involved because it can automatically make things seem more adversarial, but when it comes to an issue like this and potential damage to your home, you cannot rely on your neighbor, your neighbor’s contractor, or DCRA to protect your interests. You also might want to consider consulting with a structural engineer or some other expert who can issue an opinion as to the effect this could have on your home.

      • I can understand not wanting to appear combative, and perhaps not having the spare cash for a lawyer–but please please please get one. Among other things, imagine the ill-will you may feel toward your neighbors if their construction winds up damaging your property. An enforcable agreement to protect your property may be the best thing to keep your relationship healthy–a “good fences make good neighbors” situation.

        (And read the NYT piece that folks linked to elsewhere in this thread–it will give you issues to think about when interviewing an attorney.)

        • +1. OP, it sounds like you’ve already ruled out the lawyer idea… but this seems like a case where you really need someone with expertise in the law.

  • when my neighbor needs to have a workman come onto my property to do work on his house, he says,” hey is that cool” and i say, “yeah”.

    because thats what neighbors do.

    • Emmaleigh504


    • @Anonymous
      June 26, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      probably the smartest thing said here.
      they are building a semi-detached house in a lot zoned for semi-detached. semi-detached means that there is one shared wall between two properties. i think they are within the provisions of zoning to do so legally. good luck crying about this. i think you should be a good neighbor and respect the zoning. what you perceive as possible or not is irrelevant. be a good neighbor and welcome them. your fear of them building on your property is ridiculous. city inspectors will not let that happen and those permits would never get approved.

      • another thing…city would not let sub-division to occur if both lots were not buildable. it would not be practical. so when your lot was subdivided use of both lots was considered. city wants to make sure that the division is practical and functional.

        so what you “heard” is gossip and has no validity.

      • I know they can’t build on my property, of course I will welcome them on my property not only to fix their house, but why not for a drink.

        Written words can be perceived many different ways. Many may think I’m simply being a jerk. This is my home, where I raise my family. This is not a situation of a change of my living situation (those of us in Brookland know that density is already happening and some like me welcome it. This is a situation of protecting my home, a 100 year old wood construction house.

    • I did that, and my neighbor’s contractor killed my prized rose bush. Never again.

  • I’ve never been in this situation, but I’m about to be – construction is planned for the lot beside my house, and they will need more than just access to my property, they’ll have to remove most of my fence during construction and then put it back afterwards.

    I’ll be working with the construction firm and befriending the foreman and treating him to cold beers from time to time to avoid the mess that another neighbor had. He tried to fight construction next door to his house and was a real shmuck about it (not saying you are, just that he was), and the construction company went silent. Sure enough, right before construction started, the contractor showed up and started spray painting lines in his lawn. When he asked WTF the contractor produced a “construction easement” – they had asked the court (or maybe DCRA… not sure) to grant them permission to HIS property during the construction, and had been given that permission. He was marking for his crews where they were allowed to access. And sure enough, they were legally allowed to access it. And they ate lunch there every day, and had no issue starting right at 7am every morning.

    You might win if you fight these guys, but the construction crew knows they only have to deal with you for one project and then never see you again. So my advice, be EXTRA nice to them. They can make this much easier or much harder on you. Choose carefully!

  • This seems a little hysterical, What Zone is your house in? Setbacks from property lines are not necessarily needed, hence all the row house in the city built on the property line, when one builds or modifies one of those they only need to notify the neighbor. Even built to the property line they can do so without ever digging on your property. As for allowing them access to hang siding, if it is genuinely on the line that is your best stop, but if zoning allowed it is is a tough argument

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