House Clears Modest Changes to D.C. Height Act, Measure Heads to Senate

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House approved on Monday night the first change to the law governing building heights in Washington, D.C., in more than a century.  

A largely noncontroversial amendment to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act was approved, 367-16, sending to the Senate what House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called "the best-vetted piece of legislation the Congress could pass in cooperation with the city" during his tenure. If the bill becomes law, developers in the District could install rooftop pools, gardens, balconies or eateries extending up to 20 feet above current height limits. Current law bars human occupancy of such "mechanical penthouses."  

Issa requested a yearlong study of the future of the Height Act in 2012. That produced controversial models of skyscrapers rising along the city's unique, horizontal skyline. Competing proposals pitted local preservation advocates and the D.C. Council against Mayor Vincent Gray and planning officials, who argued the city should be allowed more of a say in how its buildings are shaped.  

"The vast majority of homes and buildings in the District of Columbia are far lower than the Height Act," Issa said Monday, pointing out that D.C.'s comprehensive plan and zoning restrictions keep most areas below the limit — generally 130 feet or 160 feet. He hopes the penthouse amendment will enhance properties along K Street and other densely populated parts of the city "while still continuing to induce people to make reasonable changes in outlying areas, if in fact additional capacity is needed either for residents of this city, or in fact, the thriving businesses of this city."  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said she was pleased with the agreement because it would not dislodge the "residential quality" of her hometown. "This bill is not a mandate directing the city to make any changes to penthouses or to its existing comprehensive plan," she said.  

Although the changes won approval from even the most adamant opponents to raising building heights, there was one vocal opponent during debate of the bill.  

Texas Republican Louie Gohmert  thought his colleagues were treading into dangerous territory, like the "camel's nose going under the tent," he warned. As property values continue to increase in the prosperous city, Gohmert fears more exceptions will be made to the Height Act and soon limits will be lifted around the city as part of real estate deals that are "too much for either party to turn down."  

Gohmert said he was grateful Issa's amendment wouldn't change the limit "by one inch," but said he felt "very concerned about beginning to make these exceptions."  

The Senate Committee with jurisdiction over D.C. has not yet scheduled any action on the Height Act bill.