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Watergate West, Inc. v. District of Columbia Board of Zoning Adjustment

District of Columbia Court of Appeals
815 A.2d 762 (2003)


In the early 1980s, the District of Columbia enacted the District of Columbia Comprehensive Plan (Plan). The Plan includes regulations regarding land use in the District of Columbia. The Plan specifically states that George Washington University (GWU) “must continue to construct student dormitories to alleviate the pressure on the housing stock outside the boundaries of the campus plan.” The District of Columbia Zoning Commission (Commission) has exclusive responsibility for making sure zoning regulations are consistent with the Plan. In 1999, GWU sought permission to use a former hotel as a dormitory for some of its students. The head of the Commission, the Zoning Administrator, approved GWU’s request for a certificate of occupancy to use the hotel as a dormitory. Watergate West (Watergate) (plaintiff) protested the certificate, arguing that the Plan prohibited GWU from using the off-campus building as a dormitory because the purpose of the Plan was to prevent GWU from reducing the housing stock near campus. Watergate contended that the Plan is self-executing. This would mean the Plan’s requirements are outside of and separate from the Commission’s zoning-regulation authority. Accordingly, under Watergate’s theory, the Commission must comply with the Plan when making zoning decisions, and any Commission decisions that are inconsistent with the Plan cannot be enforced. The District of Columbia Board of Zoning Adjustment’s (BZA) (defendant) ruled against Watergate, holding that the Plan was not self-executing. Rather, according to the BZA, the Plan could only be enforced through zoning regulations and decisions, and those zoning regulations and decisions are made exclusively by the Commission. Therefore, any zoning action by the Commission is the official interpretation of the Plan’s requirements. In addition, the Zoning Administrator testified he did consider the Plan when approving the certificate of occupancy, and the BZA found the certificate was consistent with the Plan’s housing restrictions for GWU. Watergate challenged the BZA’s ruling.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Terry, J.)

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