argue that prior to 1967 the District has consistently interpreted the statute in this way and has exacted compensation only in those cases where there was the possibility of damage to neighboring property for which the District might subsequently be liable. The plaintiffs' final argument is that the District does not own a fee simple title in the alley property, and that therefore it is improper for the Commissioners to insist that the fair market value of the property be paid as a condition to the closing.
In their opposition to the motion for summary judgment, the defendants claim that the language of § 7-404 relied on by the plaintiffs to impose a mandatory duty on the Commissioners to issue the closing order thirty days after service is not binding on the District in this case since the proposed order of April 18, 1967 specifically provided that the closing would not become final until a further order would issue. The defendants also argue that the language of § 7-401 relied on by the plaintiffs should be interpreted more broadly than urged by the plaintiffs. They argue that, in exacting the compensation that they deem appropriate from the owners to whom the alley property is reverting, the Commissioners are entitled to take into consideration "all of the circumstances of the case affecting near-by property." It is therefore urged that the Commissioners, in the exercise of their discretion under § 7-401, may take into account the fact that the return of the title in the alley property to the owners of the abutting property enhances the value of their property, and may assess the owners accordingly. Although the defendants are willing to concede for the purpose of this case that the District of Columbia does not own a fee simple title to the alley property, they argue that this does not prevent them from exacting compensation in the amount of the fair market value of the property when a public way is closed pursuant to § 7-401.
Because of the previous policy of the District of Columbia of exacting compensation for the closing of a public way only in instances where neighboring property was damaged, this is a case of first impression. This Court has carefully considered the arguments presented by counsel for all parties, and it is the opinion of this Court that the interpretation suggested by the plaintiffs is the most reasonable and logical construction of the statute. When all of the relevant sections of the statute are read together it appears that the intention of Congress in enacting the statute was that compensation should be exacted from the property owners to whom the public space was reverting only where there is a possibility that other neighboring property would be adversely affected by the closing. In such cases compensation is necessary to protect the District from future liability to these owners. The crucial statutory provision is the language of § 7-401 that the compensation was to be determined by the Commissioners "in view of all of the circumstances of the case affecting near-by property of abutters and/or nonabutters." (emphasis added). This must be read together with the provision in § 7-404 that the closing order is effective automatically thirty days after service if no objections to the closing were raised, and the provision in § 7-405 which allows the District to bring an in rem action for damages only where an objection has been raised. The Court agrees with the plaintiffs that these provisions of the statute prohibit the action taken by the Commissioners in this case.
The fact that the District itself has consistently interpreted the statute as suggested by the plaintiffs since 1932 adds support to the plaintiffs' argument even if the District has never explicitly declared that it did not think it had the power to act as it has in this case. The legislative history of the Act is inconclusive on the question now before this Court. It does not appear that the idea of assessing abutting property owners the fair market value of the public space reverting to them was considered by Congress. The principal economic purpose of the Act was the savings that would be entailed in maintenance costs by virtue of the closings as well as the elimination of barriers to real estate development in the District.
In view of the decision of the Court it is unnecessary to rule on the contentions of the plaintiffs that the issuance of the final closing order is a mandatory administrative duty and that the District did not own a fee simple title in the alley property.
© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.