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3883 Connecticut LLC v. District of Columbia

February 28, 2002

3883 CONNECTICUT LLC, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Robertson United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff is building a 168-unit apartment building on its property at 3883 Connecticut Avenue in the District of Columbia. From February through May 2000, plaintiff was granted the permits it needed to begin preparing the site for construction. Site preparation began on July 31, 2000. The next day, opponents of the project, Friends of Tilden Park, filed suit in Superior Court for the District of Columbia seeking to enjoin further construction. That court issued a temporary restraining order. The TRO expired two days later, on August 3, 2000. Within a few hours of the TRO's expiration, the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) issued a stop work order (SWO).

On August 9, 2000, plaintiff appealed the SWO to the Administrator of the Building and Land Regulation Administration. The appeal was denied on August 11, 2000, on the stated rationale that the SWO was validly issued because of the risk that the preliminary permits may have been issued based on inaccurate site information on the Environmental Impact Screening Form (EISF) plaintiff had filed as part of its application for the building permits. On August 16, 2000, plaintiff submitted a revised EISF. The revision disclosed (for the first time) that mature trees are on the property, a stream runs near the property, and an adjacent building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On August 21, 2000, plaintiff further appealed the SWO to DCRA. There was no response to that further appeal, except that, on September 7, 2000, DCRA directed plaintiff to submit a detailed environmental report on several potential impacts of the project. Plaintiff complied.

Plaintiff filed this action on October 13, 2000, seeking rescission of the SWO. On November 2, 2000, after a hearing, I denied plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction. On November 22, 2000, *fn1 DCRA rescinded the SWO, mooting the demand for injunctive relief. On January 26, 2001, plaintiff amended its complaint, adding a demand for compensatory and punitive damages for the disruption of its project between August 3 and November 22, 2000. Now before the Court is defendants' motion to dismiss or for summary judgment.

Jurisdiction

The District's first argument for dismissal invokes the Burford abstention doctrine, which counsels against the exercise of federal court jurisdiction where there are "difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result in the case then at bar." Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 814 (1976); Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943). Defendants argue that this is a local land use case whose resolution requires an assessment of the scope of authority and discretion conferred upon District officials by the District's construction codes and Environmental Policy Act.

The Burford doctrine has received short shrift in this Circuit. "[S]ensitivity and the notion of localism alone do not provide a principled rationale for abstention where federal jurisdiction admittedly exists. Federal courts routinely decide local matters of great sensitivity and we are not convinced that abstention from a federal question case may be based on this rationale." Silverman v. Barry, 727 F.2d 1121, 1123 n.4 (D.C. Cir. 1984).

Resolution of plaintiff's central claim -- that the suspension of its permits deprived it of procedural due process -- "will not require this court to intrude unduly into sensitive areas of local policy or regulation." Dominion Cogen, D.C, Inc. v. District of Columbia, 878 F. Supp. 258, 267 (D.D.C. 1995) (retaining jurisdiction in case where plaintiffs claimed "that District officials improperly withheld building permits to which the plaintiffs were legally entitled"). Defendants' jurisdictional challenge fails.

Procedural Due Process

The District next argues, in support of its motion to dismiss plaintiff's due process claim, that plaintiff failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, that the District followed the appropriate procedures, and that in any case plaintiff had no property interest in the preliminary building permits. Plaintiff has the better argument on the first two of those points. "[O]ne pursuing a procedural due process claim need not exhaust his local remedies." Tri County Indus., Inc. v. District of Columbia, 104 F.3d 455, 462 (D.C. Cir. 1997). And the District's assertion that it followed the appropriate SWO procedures is suspect. At the Superior Court TRO hearing on August 1, 2000, the District represented that the construction site had been investigated and that the environmental concerns of the community group and claims of inaccuracies in the EISF were unfounded. Pl.'s Mem. Ex. C at 6. Two days later, it considered the "incomplete and/or incorrect information on plaintiff's original EISF" substantial enough to warrant issuance of the SWO. Defs.' Mem at 13. That chronology suggests that the reasons given for issuing the SWO were pretextual. Cf. Tri County Indus., 104 F.3d at 460, 462.

On the third point, however, the District is correct:

the permits the District issued to plaintiff were not building permits and did not confer property rights. In Tri County Indus., 104 F.3d at 458, the Court of Appeals assumed, based on the concession of the District, that a building permit is a property right. The court rejected the proposition, however, "that an agency 'deprives' an applicant of 'property' whenever it backtracks on a prior favorable finding on one of [the many steps toward issuance of a building permit] independently of withdrawal of the permit itself." Id.

The work interrupted by the SWO in this case was authorized by a sheeting and shoring permit, an excavation permit, a permit to construct the foundation to grade level, a permit to underpin an adjoining property, and a permit to underpin and locate shoring at another adjoining property.

None of those permits was a "prerequisite to construction" that stood "apart from the need for a building permit." Id. Rather, they were some of the "many steps toward issuance of a building permit." Id. The D.C. regulations do provide, for instance, that something called a "building permit" is needed for underpinning, and each of plaintiff's underpinning permits is labeled "building permit." D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 12A, ยง 107.2.1 (2001); Pl.'s Response to Ord. (Exs. 4-5). To regard these five permits as anything but steps toward issuance of a building permit, however, is to elevate label over substance. The real building permit was not issued until ...


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