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Spring Valley - Wesley Heightscitizensassociation v. District of Columbia Zoning Commission

September 02, 2004


On Petition for Review of an Order of the District of Columbia Zoning Commission.

Before Schwelb, Farrell and Glickman, Associate Judges.

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

Argued November 17, 2003

American University maintains two campuses in residentially-2 zoned districts of northwest Washington, D.C. The Main Campus is located on a seventy-six acre plot of land at Ward Circle, where Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues intersect. The eight-acre Tenley Campus is located a mile away at Tenley Circle, where Nebraska Avenue intersects with Wisconsin Avenue. Because these locations are zoned for residential use, the Zoning Regulations of the District of Columbia require the University to apply for a special exception, which may be granted upon approval of a suitable Campus Plan. See Levy v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 570 A.2d 739, 742 (D.C. 1990); 11 DCMR § 210 (2002). In 2002, after a prolonged decision-making process that included five public hearings, the District of Columbia Zoning Commission conditionally approved a Campus Plan that the University proposed for the years 2000-2010. This "2000 Campus Plan" replaced the "1989 Campus Plan" that the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) had approved more than a decade earlier, in 1990. See Glenbrook Rd. Ass'n v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 605 A.2d 22, 26 (D.C. 1992). Among other things, the new 2000 Campus Plan adjusts the numerical ceiling on the number of students enrolled at the Main and Tenley Campuses and requires the University to implement a program to reduce off-campus parking by its students, faculty, staff, and vendors.

Petitioners are several neighborhood citizens' associations and two local area residents who participated in the proceedings before the Zoning Commission.*fn2 They ask us to review certain discrete aspects of the Commission's approval of the 2000 Campus Plan. First, although petitioners are satisfied with the enrollment ceiling that the Commission found appropriate, they object to the form in which the Plan expresses that ceiling. Second, petitioners contend that the Commission should have required American University to utilize parking stickers as part of its off-campus parking program, as petitioners and the participating ANCs recommended. Third, petitioners argue that the Commission should have continued a restriction on the direction of loudspeakers at the University's athletic fields and other specific conditions that the BZA had imposed when it approved the 1989 Campus Plan.

When the Zoning Commission evaluates a proposed campus plan, it must "evaluate whether [the] proposed use as a college or university, as a whole, is likely to become objectionable to neighboring property because of noise, traffic, number of students and other conditions." Levy, 570 A.2d at 751 (emphasis in the original); see also 11 DCMR § 210.2. "The [Commission's] decision is merely a reasonable forecast or prediction that the plan will not cause objectionable conditions." Citizens Ass'n of Georgetown v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 403 A.2d 737, 743 (D.C. 1979). The Commission may impose reasonable restrictions in order to minimize the impact of the university on the neighborhood, see, e.g., Citizens Ass'n of Georgetown v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 365 A.2d 372, 377 n.7 (D.C. 1976), but in doing so the Commission also should have due regard for the University's needs and prerogatives. See Glenbrook Rd. Ass'n, 605 A.2d at 32. Since ANC concerns are entitled by statute to "great weight" in governmental deliberations, the Commission is required to address ANC recommendations in its written decision with "particularity and precision." D.C. Code § 1-309.10 (d)(3)(B) (2001).

Our review of a Zoning Commission order approving a campus plan is limited to determining whether the decision is arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise not in accordance with law. See Georgetown Residents Alliance v. District of Columbia Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 802 A.2d 359, 363 (D.C. 2002); see also Cathedral Park Condominium Comm. v. District of Columbia Zoning Comm'n, 743 A.2d 1231, 1239 (D.C. 2000). Absent a material procedural impropriety or error of law, the Commission's decision stands so long as it "rationally flows from findings of fact supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Georgetown Residents Alliance, 802 A.2d at 363 (citation omitted).

In accordance with the limited scope of our review, we uphold the Zoning Commission order in this case as rational, supported by substantial evidence in the record, and compliant with legal requirements in all but one respect. We are constrained to remand the case to the Commission for one reason only: to permit that body to explain its reasons in writing for declining to follow one particular recommendation of the ANCs.

The Ceiling on Enrollment

American University's 1989 Campus Plan provided that enrollment at the Main and Tenley Campuses would not exceed 11,233 students for the duration of the Plan. This ceiling was expressed in an exhibit to the Plan as the sum of two components: a base headcount of 10,381 students plus a cap of approximately 8 percent, or 852 students, "to allow for fluctuations in enrollment trends, retention rates and program offerings."

The ceiling in the 1989 Plan covered all students on campus, including students at the University's law school. After the 1989 Plan was approved, however, the University moved its law school to a commercially-zoned site three blocks from the Main Campus. When the University submitted its 2000 Campus Plan, the Zoning Commission concluded that the relocation of the law school necessitated an adjustment of the ceiling in the Plan on student enrollment. Ultimately, the Commission approved the 2000 Campus Plan on the condition that student enrollment over the life of the plan not exceed 10,600 students. This new ceiling is lower than the former ceiling of 11,233 students because the Commission found that law students not enrolled at the Main Campus would continue to use it for some activities and have a corresponding impact on traffic and parking in the vicinity.

Although petitioners argued for an even lower ceiling on enrollment when they appeared before the Commission, in this court they do not challenge the ceiling that the Commission adopted. Petitioners object only to the Commission's decision not to express the ceiling in the 2000 Plan the same way as it was expressed in the 1989 Plan -- as a bifurcated number incorporating a base headcount and an allowance for upward fluctuation. Petitioners argue that "the clear result" of this decision "is that the normal, ongoing allowed total student population level will be increased -- from the base level of 10,381 in the 1989 plan, to 10,600, in the new plan." Since the Commission found that the ceiling should be revised downward from the 1989 Plan, petitioners argue that the Commission's conclusion does not flow rationally from its findings.

We are not persuaded by petitioners' argument. The proper comparison is with the ceiling of 11,233 students in the 1989 Plan, not with a mere component of that ceiling. The 1989 Plan did not establish the "base headcount" of 10,381 students as a norm to which the University was required to adhere. Rather, the 1989 Plan allowed the University to exceed that base count by up to 8 percent in its discretion. The only true limitation in the 1989 Plan was that the University could not enroll more than the total figure. For the 2000 Plan, that not-to-be-exceeded enrollment figure has been lowered by 633 students. That the Commission decided not to express the new, lower figure in the bifurcated manner of ...

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