Re-creation of “Carriage House” Angers South Carolina Avenue Residents

Draft Proposal of Re-created "Carriage House"

Draft Proposal of Re-created “Carriage House”

Diagram Showing Properties Directly Affected by Proposed Construction

Diagram Showing Properties Directly Affected by Proposed Construction Which Would Be at the Wide End of the Oddly Shaped Triangular Lot

Neighbor Holds White Mock Wall to Illustrate Impact of Proposed Structure

Neighbor Holds White Mock Wall to Illustrate Impact of Proposed Structure

There Are Neighbors, Then There Are “Neighbors”

Re-creation of “Carriage House” Angers South Carolina Avenue Residents

by Larry Janezich

A recent Historical Preservation Application by a resident of the 1000 block of South Carolina Avenue, SE discloses that the resident wants to build a 15 foot “shed” in the middle of a land-locked block, based on the claim that a similarly sized carriage house existed on the property in the 19th century.

Some 16 immediate neighbors object to the plan.  It’s not as though it would be across the alley; there is no alley.  The structure would loom over the backyards of six or seven neighbors whose properties surround the oddly-shaped lot, and, they claim, it would decrease their property values and interfere with their enjoyment of their yards.   In addition, neighbors fear – citing the height of the 16 foot by 14 foot structure – the owner’s ultimate goal is to construct a rental property, which would impinge upon their backyard enjoyment still further.

When the case came before ANC6B in June, the Commission voted 9-0 to oppose the application, citing insufficient information, the fact that the applicant’s plan did not conform to the applicant’s verbal statement, and the applicant’s lack of outreach to the neighbors.

When HPRB got the case, they dismissed ANC6B’s concerns out of hand, and despite reservations on the part of several Board Members who thought the height should come down to 10 feet, handed the case off to the Historical Preservation Office (HPO) staff to resolve and make a final determination.  After the HPO staff had signed off on the 15 foot height, one of the nearby neighbors wrote to HPO:

“I am very disappointed that the neighbor’s input was not considered during this process to date. I have reviewed the video [of the hearing] several times and it does appear to me that the Chair wanted the staff to be ‘a bridge between [the owner] and the ANC and neighbors.’  The video shows that the Chair intended that [the owner] enter into a dialog with us regarding the height of the shed and its function. The Chair also stated that the staff discuss a minimum height that would be functional as a shed.”

The response from HPO staff member Sarah VanLandingham reads in part:  “We met with [the owner] earlier this week to talk through some of the details. He is committed to remaining at the 15’ height. After going back and listening to the hearing again and then double-checking the intention with the Chair, Gretchen Pfaehler, the board’s ruling is not strong enough to require him to reduce the height if he claims that he needs it.

From here, [the owner] will need to get together drawings for permitting that meet the zoning and code requirements regarding setbacks, etc. Our office will work with him on detailing the aesthetics of the design but, unfortunately, many of the concerns expressed by the neighbors are not under the purview of the HPRB or HPO.

I’m happy to provide you with plans when [the owner] is ready for permitting but, at this point, the Board has ruled in his favor and the project will be moving forward. I encourage you to talk with your ANC about this issue and any other concerns in your community and I am happy to provide you with contact information if you need it.”

One of the neighbors told CHC, “What infuriates all of us is that the Historic Preservation Office ignored ANC and comments from CHRS.  He’s building an apartment house.”  Another said, “[the owner] has still made zero effort to reach out to neighbors and the staff memo to the historic preservation head was a very, very slight rewrite of [the owner’s] own claims.”

26 Comments

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26 responses to “Re-creation of “Carriage House” Angers South Carolina Avenue Residents

  1. Jen Squires

    Hey, at least the HPRB is consistent – considering that the Board has rejected so many build requests over the years based on the lack of historical precedent (e.g. sidewalk cuts, pop-ups, etc), they can’t very well reject an application looking to recreate a building that was once there…

  2. Roger Tauss

    Another example of how flawed the current system is. The ANC is the group representing the interests of residents, but it has no means to enforce its decision — in court or otherwise. As constructed, its real purpose is to deflect residents’ anger from city council members to the ANC. The ANC’s need to be funded by council in order to be able to retain attorneys when city laws giving weight to ANC decisions are ignored.

    • Craig D'Ooge

      ANC are funded by council and do hire attorneys to advise them sometimes, but they (blessedly) have no legal enforcement authority. As one of my neighbors said “If the ANCs had enforcement authority, this city would be a police state.” No enforcement authority, but you do get to have residents grovel before you AND the law established a sort of what I call a “graft ceiling”. You can accept up to $1,000 in “donations”–though it is not clear how often or if this is an aggregate amount. You, like they, seem to think they should be some sort of shadow of DC’s shadow govt. Chaos would ensue.

  3. DavidS

    Isn’t there an aphorism about people who live in historic districts not throwing stones?

  4. Melissa Merz

    This is completely outrageous. A total FU from the HPRB right in our backyard — literally. I won’t throw historic if he doesn’t build a 15 foot structure just feet away from our patio.

    • Craig D'Ooge

      All the affected neighbors should get together and make him an offer for the land. Certainly you should research the basis for his title to it. It is unusual to have private property in an area that is characteristically a public alley on Captiol Hill.

  5. Also, the so called was never there. It was likely an outhouse or chicken coop. It’s historical fiction!

    • Craig D'Ooge

      It’s ALL historical fiction, based on a doomed attempt to recreate a past that never was, except through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. There is a completely arbitrary “period of significance” which structures are deemed to “contributing” to, or not, by what can only be charitably called “history buffs.” They are organized into associations and boards whose chief authority stems from their personal view of what was “historic” and what was not and to keep the process so complicated and involved that the Historic Preservation Review Board regularly advises homeowners to hire specialists both to navigate “the system” (as a board member so quaintly called it recently) and couch any proposed construction into conceptual language sufficiently abstruse to perpetuate the charade. The brick sidewalks installed in recent years are a perfect example. They “look” historic, but they are anything but. They now want to extend the borders of the Capitol Hill Hysteric (sorry, Historic) District, and my advice to anyone living in that new proposed area is MOVE!

  6. Hill Feller

    The HPRB is supposed to give “great weight” to the ANC but this has been gutted by case law and is now meaningless. I agree that the ANC should be given greater authority: I think a 3/4 majority of the HPRB should be required to overrule the ANC. More power at the ANC level would also mean that more people would be interested in running.

    • Craig D'Ooge

      Do you really want to set up a couple hundred ANC suzerainties in DC? Think of what would happend in a “single member district,” for example.
      They would get uniforms for sure. “Your rose bush is too high!” No thank you.

    • Craig D'Ooge

      Actually what has been gutted is any pretense that the ANCs reflect or incorporate community sentiment. The law was changed so that now they only have to “consider” it, and they only determine whether or not this opaque action within their minds was done.

  7. ET

    I always wondered about the interior slice of that particular block. Whole thing seems a bit off and I would definitely make sure the person building on that land has a right to actually do so. He would have had to get a plat from the city to get permits (I had to do that to replace my fence) but still.

    I know in my own case that many, many years ago land was taken from the lot my house is on and several of its neighbors to create the alley but I don’t think it would automatically revert back if the alley was closed in. I know that there are parts of what look to be the ally that are owned by some of the houses that back up to it but that line only extends to what is the officially alley (i.e. the land that the garbage truck uses). Also, since I am not a side house there is a swath of land that runs down the side of my house that is considered undevelopable land owned by the city (though I am responsible for maintaining it).

  8. Cheryl

    Any proof that he owns the alley, it seems like that would be a shared area

  9. From the plat map, it appears that this “carriage house” is on its own — not on a lot with a house on it. Is that correct? In which case, I ask whether an alley building which will be used as a residence is required to have a street address and some street frontage? I think it may. A case in point is the Capitol Hill house built by former House Speaker Thomas Foley in the alley between C and D Sts. SE between 12th and 13th Sts. When he built this house inside an alley, he seemingly was required to have a street address and some street frontage. This was achieved by the demolishing of a row house on the south side of 1200 block of C St. SE, which former house lot now serves as the walkway to the Foley front door.

  10. Ivan Frishberg

    As is typical, the mundane reality lies somewhere between the commenters like Roger and Craig. I voted to oppose this project for the reasons that Larry so accurately stated in the article. The threshold for HPRB rejecting an application is in reality and code higher though.

    First, as I remember the case, we made it clear and challenged the applicant on the false notion that because something (undefined other than its area in the historic documents) may have been there before doesn’t create an entitlement to a 2 story structure now.

    So then the question comes, if he is not willing to find a compromise with the neighbors, what is the legal basis for HPRB opposing the structure? There may be grounds for the project to be stopped or modified on Zoning grounds but honestly I think we all struggled to see the clear case in code for why this should be stopped at HPRB.

    My guess is that as this case continues to the zoning / permitting side the residents may have more leverage and may well be able to involved the ANC.

    At the same meeting as we heard this issue, the ANC wrote to HPRB and complained about their handling of another case, so I think we are pretty willing to call foul when we see it. Unfortunately, in this case I think Roger’s idea of equipping us with enough money to file a law suit would be frivolous and wasteful, ultimately without merit and would indeed lead to all sorts of chaos across the city. Similarly, the insinuation by Craig about ANC’s some how being on the take with a “graft ceiling” that has some sort of loop hole is also nonsense.

    The ANCs are not perfect – and in that regard they are like the rest of democracy. But they are a pretty helpful part of our city that among many functions, seem to weed out the extreme and outlandish theories that might otherwise be represented as community sentiment.

    • Jen Squires

      Ivan, the thing that crushes the spirit of those of us who have gone thru the HRPB process, is if “something (undefined other than its area in the historic documents) may have been there before doesn’t create an entitlement to a 2 story structure now”, what’s the rationale for why residents can’t build something that hasn’t been there before, so long as it fits within the historic context of the neighborhood? It’s all so arbitrary.

      • Craig D'Ooge

        So many people can say no, and so few yes. A neighbor of mine wanted to improve the public space with some landscaping in front of her house in the CHHD, and she could conceivably have to go before 6 boards of 8-10 people each, including one that clearly states they don’t regulate landscaping, but nevertheless want to review what you do. And then they wonder why people do things at night and on weekends. We now pay more attention to finials in this neighborhood than we do to people. All the Hysteric Preservationists rally around preserving a shack on E St. SE, cooing about “vernacular architecture” while “Hell on earth” sits further down the street in the form of the DC shelter. It’s sometimes embarrassing to be a white person in this town.

      • Hi Jen – I get the frustration, but I don’t think it is that arbitrary. The basic complaints from the neighbors are ‘air and light” complaints – legitimate ones in my view. Those are not HRPB issues. The HPRB issues really center on what is viewable from the street and the aesthetics. The use issues (like if he does try to ultimately make it an occupancy) and the ‘air and light’ issues are zoning issues.

        Just because he doesn’t have an entitlement to build here on historic grounds, doesn’t mean he is prohibited from building on historic grounds.

        I know Kirsten is continuing to work on this. Good luck.

  11. Craig D'Ooge

    In other words, trust us, we know better. If you know better then why were you not given more authority? How exactly do the ANCs “weed out” anything? They don’t have the authority to pull a single weed, even though they act as if the city rise and falls on their judgement. They are the living embodiment of why DC should never become a state, IMHO. Of course as an ANC commissioner you would defend yourself, but the fact is the ANCs no longer by law have to reflect, embody or even answer to community sentiment; though at different times they did; they merely have to “consider” it, like some lofty House of Lords or something, which again, by law, can accept up to $1,000 in “contributions,” not including things like free meeting spaces from the very people they are supposed to give the city advice about. Hence the graft ceiling. If the ultimate authority rest with the ‘neighbors,’ who needs you?

  12. anon

    I’m confused — if the owner intends to lease the property, how will the occupant gain access with no egress? Will they have to enter through another private home? Will there be a zip line over the other houses or a teleporter from the adjacent curb? This makes no sense unless it’s for personal use by the property owner.

  13. Not my neighborhood, but

    It does seem to be a zoning issue and one that hinges on the interpretation of 11-2500.4: “An accessory building in any zone district shall not exceed one (1) story or fifteen feet (15 ft.) in height, except as provided in § 2500.5”

    2500.5 applies only to R-1 zones and allows servants’ quarters atop a garage. Ground floor here is clearly not a garage.

    Relief from 2500.4 can be granted by the BZA through a special exception. Here are the standards:

    “11-223.2 The addition or accessory structure shall not have a substantially adverse affect on the use or enjoyment of any abutting or adjacent dwelling or property, in particular:

    (a) The light and air available to neighboring properties shall not be unduly affected;
    (b) The privacy of use and enjoyment of neighboring properties shall not be unduly compromised;
    (c) The addition or accessory structure, together with the original building, as viewed from the street, alley, and other public way, shall not substantially visually intrude upon the character, scale and pattern of houses along the subject street frontage; and
    (d) In demonstrating compliance with paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of this subsection, the applicant shall use graphical representations such as plans, photographs, or elevation and section drawings sufficient to represent the relationship of the proposed addition or accessory structure to adjacent buildings and views from public ways.

    223.3 The lot occupancy of all new and existing structures on the lot shall not exceed fifty percent (50%) in the R-1 and R-2 Districts or seventy percent (70%) in the R-3, R-4, and R-5 Districts.”

    Does the owner intend to go to the BZA? Or is the owner’s hope that the Zoning Administrator will sign off on the permits because the structure has HP approval? (Sometimes the ZA makes really counter-intuitive calls on textual interpretations — here I can imagine a claim that since the accessory building doesn’t exceed 15 feet in height it’s matter-of-right. Not consistent with how the 40 ft/3 story height limit is interpreted (both constraints are binding) but that section of the code is drafted differently (there’s a chart rather than text and no “or”).)

    Maybe the ANC can investigate how/whether/by whom the zoning limit will be applied.

    • Hill dweller

      I think you may be wrongly assuming that the building exceeds the one-story limit in 2500.4. Per the definition in section 199.1, a “mezzanine” does not count as a story, and the HPO staff report suggests that this is exactly what is planned here: “a one-story storage building with loft space at the rear of the lot.” (This architect has used the same exception to good advantage in previous projects on the Hill.)

  14. Not my neighborhood, but

    I didn’t have the case number (or even the address), so I was relying on the images here which certainly seemed to show two stories of windows. Yes, if the “loft” is no more than 1/3 of the floor area below (in this case, presumably, < 75 SF — which means about 5 feet deep (more or less, depending on which side of the building it runs along), it could be characterized as a mezzanine under the current code.

    That said, the Office of Planning has a proposed text amendment to that code before the Zoning Commission (Case ZC 14-11) which *would* count mezzanines as stories. And, *that* said, strangely enough, OP's recent supplemental filing in the Zoning Regulations Review proceeding (ZC 08-06A) includes a weird hybrid of the old rule and the proposed text amendment. This hybrid version would prohibit mezzanines above the third floor (in a zone with a 3 story limit) but seemingly would not apply in other contexts — e.g. this one and, presumably, in cases involving the 20 foot tall one-story habitable penthouses authorized by Congress in their revisions to the Height of Buildings Act earlier this year. FWIW, the 14-11 text amendment post-dates (June 24th) the 08-06A filing (June 16th). There was a setdown hearing Thursday (July 17th) on 14-11, but I wasn't there and haven't watched the tape yet, so I don't know what happened.

    In any event, it sounds as if HPO wasn't working with actual plans and their staff's interpretation/characterization of a project certainly doesn't bind the Zoning Administrator or the BZA, so I'd think it's worth pursuing the zoning issue. And since ZC 14-11 includes other provisions specifically related to R-4 zones, it's probably of more general interest to Capitol Hill residents.

  15. Not in my hood – if you send private email to me at melissamerz@hotmail.com, I can send everything to you.