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Georgetown Residents Alliance v. District of Columbia Board of Zoning Adjustment

July 11, 2002


Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Farrell and Washington, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge

Petition for Review on a Decision of the District of Columbia Board of Zoning Adjustment

Argued December 13, 2001

On October 6, 1999, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) granted the application of the Tudor Place Foundation, Inc., (Foundation), a nonprofit organization, to (1) continue for an additional period of three years the previously approved operation of a house museum located at 1644 31st Street, N.W. (also known as the Tudor Place); and (2) extend the originally approved operation of the house museum to include the adjacent property located at 1670 31st Street, N.W. (also known as the Dower House). The Foundation's intent at the time was to use the Dower House for meetings, small receptions, and art programs.

The BZA found that the Foundation, after extensive communications with the neighboring community, had devised a highly restrictive list of conditions for the operation of the house museum and its special events *fn1 that would help to alleviate any adverse affects on the neighboring properties. The applicant's willingness to agree to these conditions resulted in the unanimous support of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (ANC 2E) and a large number of the neighborhood residents. The application was opposed, however, by several neighborhood residents, including petitioner, Georgetown Residents Alliance (GRA). Their petition for review principally challenges the propriety of the BZA's ruling to extend Tudor Place's use as a house museum, when the museum is also being used to host special events and corporate gatherings, as well as the authority of the BZA to allow the originally approved operation to include the adjacent Dower House. Finding substantial evidence to support the BZA's rulings, we affirm.


Designated a National Historic Landmark and listed in the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites, Tudor Place is among the foremost Federal era mansions in the nation. Thomas Peter and his wife Martha Custis Peter purchased the original Tudor Place estate in 1805. Martha Custis Peter was the granddaughter of Martha Washington, and an inheritance from George Washington financed the purchase of the estate. The neoclassical mansion was designed by Dr. William Thornton, the first architect of the United States Capitol, and was built in 1816. Through the years, six generations of the Peter family have lived in Tudor Place. The buildings, gardens, collections, and archives reflect a family continuity of 180 years unique in the nation's capital.

In 1966, Armistead Peter III, then owner of Tudor Place, granted a scenic easement to the United States Department of the Interior for the permanent preservation of Tudor Place and its grounds by preventing the land from being subdivided or inappropriately developed. As one of the last direct descendants of the Peter family, Mr. Peter also executed a will to maintain Tudor Place for the public's use and enjoyment in perpetuity. On the death of Armistead Peter III in 1983, Tudor Place Foundation, Inc., assumed management of the property. The house and grounds were opened to the public in 1988.

Since 1988, the Board of Zoning Adjustment has approved the use of Tudor Place as a house museum for limited year terms, pursuant to 11 DCMR § 201.1 (1995). *fn2 As a house museum, Tudor Place is open for public tours of the house and its garden. In addition, Tudor Place hosts events for charitable groups at no charge and provides free tours and educational programs for school groups.

The Dower House property was a part of the original Tudor Place estate, but the Peters sold that portion of the estate around the time of the Civil War. The Dower House was built in 1867. In 1961, Armistead Peter III repurchased the property for use once again as an integral part of the family residence. Upon Mr. Peter's death, his widow received a life tenancy in the Dower House, with the remainder passing to the Foundation. Since Mrs. Peter's death in 1995, the Dower House has been used as housing for the Executive Director of Tudor Place and a Tudor Place intern, as well as, a place for the Foundation's Board of Trustees meetings.


1. Tudor Place

In the present case, the BZA concluded that the Foundation's application, seeking a special exception to continue the operation of a house museum in an R-1 residential district, was governed by 11 DCMR §§ 3108.1 and 217 *fn3 (1995), of the zoning regulations. Pursuant to section 3108.1, the BZA is authorized to grant special exceptions where, in the judgment of the board, "those special exceptions will be in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the zoning regulations and will not tend to affect adversely the use of neighboring property." Id. The BZA granted the special exception, concluding that the Foundation met the requirements under both sections of the zoning regulations. *fn4

Our review of a decision of the BZA is limited to a determination of whether the decision is "arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise [not] in accordance with the law." Davidson v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 617 A.2d 977, 981 (D.C. 1992) (internal citations omitted). On questions relating to the interpretation of the zoning regulations, this court's review is deferential, "upholding such interpretations unless they are plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the zoning regulation[s]." Id. Accordingly, this court must uphold the decision of the BZA "if [it] rationally flow[s] from ...

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