The ABCs of Zoning


Attend any meeting on zoning and you will be confronted with a barrage of acronyms: BZA, ZC, PUD, OP, DCRA, OZ, ZA, ZRR, ANC, R-4, C-2-A. It's enough to confuse even those in this town use to the governmental alphabet soup.

Before confronting the nomenclature, let's start at the basics: building permits, zoning and land use planning regulations. Land use planning regulations are the end point and building permits are the mechanism. The intermediate step is the work of zoning.

Yes! There is a Plan

As set forth in the Home Rule Act, land use planning in the District of Columbia is embodied in the Comprehensive Plan. All zoning and building permits flow (theoretically) from the principles and policies established in the Comp Plan, as it commonly called (http://planning.dc.gov/page/comprehensive-plan). The Comp Plan is prepared by the DC Office of Planning (OP), submitted by the Mayor, approved by the Council and encoded as Title 10-A of the DC Municipal Regulations. The current version was created in 1984/85. A new version was adopted in 2006 with further amendments added in 2011. (Maps of the plan are available at http://planning.dc.gov/page/comprehensive-plan-future-land-use-maps.)

As the most recent version states:

“The Comprehensive Plan is relevant to most people’s daily lives and interests since it directs how and where change and development will occur...It will affect where development occurs; where green space, recreation facilities and parks are improved; and how neighborhoods are conserved and enhanced as desirable places to live.”

The Comp Plan contains a variety of policies consisting of 13 “Citywide Elements,” “10 Area Elements,” an implementation plan and a land use map. The Citywide Elements cover everything from housing and transportation to environmental and historic preservation to community services and education. The Area Elements detail goals for specific parts of the city. For example, two of the many policies in the Capitol Hill Area are:

  • Establish traffic management strategies to reduce commuter traffic on East Capitol Street, Independence Avenue, C Street NE, 17th Street SE, and other predominantly residential streets that also function as through streets.
  • Promote continued investment, maintenance, and modernization of important community public facilities in the Capitol Hill Planning Area, including schools, libraries, and social service facilities.

The Comp Plan is not self-implementing however. Theoretically, actions by the Council and DC agencies should follow the plan, but such actions are not mandated by the plan.

The Council can also adopt so-called “Small Area Plans.” These schemes tweak the Comp Plan to fit a specific area. In Ward 6, the Council has adopted Small Area Plans for both Reservation 13 (The Hill East Waterfront) and Southwest.

Where the Comp and Small Area Plans provide overall vision, the actual mechanics of location, usage, density and size of buildings are governed by Zoning Regulations, which in the words of the Home Rule Act can "not be incompatible with the Comprehensive Plan."

What Are Zoning Regulations?

Zoning regulations govern two aspects of a building: size (both height and "area") and use. Uses are generally classified as residential, commercial, industrial or mixed use (commercial and residential) – with special purpose and waterfront zones as well.

Within each of those major categories there are subcategories. Residential zones run from R-1-A (single family detached homes) to R-5-E (large apartment buildings). Commercial zones go from C-1 (neighborhood retail) to C-4 (downtown business district) and C-5 (the Pennsylvania Avenue Development District).

The zoning map designates the zoning district for each part of the city. Most, but not all, of Capitol Hill is zoned either R-4 (rowhouses) or C-2-A (medium density commercial centers). In contrast, most of Southwest is zoned for a higher density at R-5 (apartment/condo buildings) and C-3 (medium/high density commercial centers) with some R-4. Shaw and the Northwest areas of Ward 6 are zoned a mix of R-4, R-5, C-2 and C-3.

Each zoning district has its own list of allowed uses. For example, an R-4 zone generally limits buildings to two dwelling units per building. Most R-5 zones place no restrictions on the number of units in a building (subject to certain unit size minimums). A movie theater is allowed in a C-2-A zone but not in a C-1 zone. (The DC Zoning Map can be found at http://maps.dcoz.dc.gov/)

Each of the zoning district categories has its specific limits on height and massing (as measured by the floor-area ratio - FAR) and has requirements for lot size, lot occupancy (the percentage of a lot that a building may cover), size of rear and side yards and the number of parking spaces. For example, buildings in an R-4 zone are limited to 35 feet in height and cannot exceed 60 percent lot occupancy.

Of course, there are buildings and uses that are grandfathered—generally those that were in existence when the zoning regulations were first adopted in 1958.

There are also zoning overlays that create special rules for an area. For example, the part of the area along Eighth Street SE south of the freeway is an overlay that limits the building heights and places some restrictions on the number of bars and restaurants.

This article is the first of a two-part series. Look for the next installment in the October Hill Rag.

Ken Jarboe is a long time resident of Capitol Hill. A former ANC Commissioner and Chair of ANC 6B, he has sat through and testified at many zoning meetings and hearings. He currently serves as a Resident Member of ANC 6B's Planning and Zoning Committee.