Monday, March 10, 2014

Meet the New Code: Even Worse Than the Old Code

The dialogue that surrounds the ZRR (aka zoning regulations review) has been surprisingly nasty and polarizing.   Lost in the name-calling and the focus on a few issues (parking, accessory apartments, and corner stores) is the fact that the Zoning Commission is being asked to replace our existing zoning code with a new 980 page document that virtually no one has read and even fewer people have actually tried to use. 

The Office of Planning (OP) was charged with streamlining, simplifying, and updating the code and making it more user-friendly.   Has OP succeeded? 

The proposed new code is almost 300 pages *longer* than the existing code.  (By contrast, when Philadelphia planners were given the same task, the new code they proposed was 200 pages shorter than the old.)

An overlay that consists of six consecutive and coherent pages in the current code has its provisions scattered over at least 37 different pages (and six different subtitles) in the proposed code.  And those pages now provide conflicting information about what can be done within the affected area.

Under the current code, we have 35 zones and 26 neighborhood-specific overlays; under the proposed new code, we’d have 142 different zones.  The naming/numbering of zones in the existing code is logical and systematic.   In the new code, not so much. 

Typically, a recodification project of this nature – i.e. one that is cast primarily as a clean-up of an old and much-amended existing code that has grown convoluted and difficult to use – would attempt to codify/incorporate settled case law and administrative interpretations.  No such attempt has been made here.   The status of existing precedent under the new code gets even murkier because the proposed code retains much of the same vocabulary as the old code, but redefines a number of terms.  It would keep many existing zone definitions, but change the names associated with them.  Many passages in the new code have been cut and pasted from the old code but, in this process, their context has changed.   So are we going to start from scratch and treat every interpretive question that arises as a new one?  Instead of revising the code to make it easier to understand, OP has adopted an approach that will make the process of interpreting the zoning regulations even more opaque and unpredictable. 
There are a host of other issues – e.g. endless almost-but-not-quite-identical tables (that lack legends and whose coding is counter-intuitive), incomprehensible sentences, the absence of cross-references or overviews – that suggest the drafters of this code had little or no previous experience writing regulations and didn’t spend much, if any, time thinking about how a reader would use the text they were creating. 

We do ourselves and our city a real disservice if we treat the ZRR as just a referendum on whether corner stores are good or cars are bad.  This is high-stakes legislation – the zoning code controls the use and development of land throughout the District, and the last code DC adopted has stayed in place for over 50 years.  The fact that it took the Office of Planning seven years and countless meetings to produce this 980 page nightmare of a draft isn’t sufficient reason to adopt it.  The Zoning Commission needs to make its decision based on whether the new code represents a significant improvement over the old code.   By any of the criteria set forth at the beginning of this process, it does not.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing against changing the existing code.  Throughout the ZRR process, the Office of Planning has continued to propose (and the Zoning Commission has continued to adopt) text amendments to the existing code.  These have included the Green Area Ratio (GAR), zoning for the development of Saint Elizabeth’s, and a variety of other, more minor, provisions.  There’s no reason that parking minimums, accessory apartments, and corner stores (or any other policy change OP wants to initiate) can’t be handled in the same way.

As for rendering the existing code easier to use, it would be a great leap forward if that code were available online as a single searchable pdf.  (And/or if the format was one pdf per chapter.)  The existing interface (which links to a separate pdf for each reg) is needlessly difficult to work with.  Eliminating that difficulty doesn't require changing the substance of the code -- just its formatting.