The Catholic University of America

Summary of District of Columbia Laws


Zoning Regulations

Housing and Building Restrictions and Regulations

D.C. Code Chapter 6 Title 6

Application: District of Columbia zoning regulations apply to all real property within the District with the exception of that owned by the United States and used or intended for a federal public building or use. Some property owned by the District is also excluded. Certain urban renewal areas are subject to the zoning regulations, but may instead be subject to different regulations. (For example, the Southwest areas are subject to the Redevelopment Land Agency and not the D.C. zoning regulations.) In order to erect, construct, reconstruct, convert, or alter any building or structure in the District, a permit must be obtained and the work must conform to the zoning regulation requirements.

Zone Districts: The city is divided into residential, commercial, mixed-use, and industrial zone districts. The regulations govern different aspects of development and use, including height, parking, and lot size and the intensity of the restrictions will vary. The official zoning map setting forth the location and boundaries of the zone districts is maintained in the D.C. Office of Zoning and is available for inspection by the public at 441 4th Street, N.W., Room 210, (202) 727-6311 or online here. A written request may be made to the Office to certify the zoning applicable to the specific property. The request must be accompanied by an original and two copies of a plan of property prepared by the Surveyor of D.C. or by a registered architect or engineer.

Certificate of Occupancy: A certificate of occupancy must be obtained for each use before a person may use or occupy any or any part of a building, structure, or land. A separate certificate must be obtained for each use, though collective certificates are available for apartment houses and office buildings if applicable. Either the owner of the property or the tenant who will operate a business therein must obtain the certificate. Application can be made at the Permits Center, 2ndFloor, 614 H Street, N.W. Before one takes occupancy, the space must be inspected for compliance with zoning, building, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and fire prevention requirements. See D.C. Code Ann. § 5-426 ; D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 11, § 3203.1.

For help with Zoning DC provides an online handbook.

Selected Cases

George Washington University v. District of Columbia, Feb. 4, 2003 No. 02-7055

This case stands for the proposition that zoning boards can bar construction of new non-residential buildings to keep housing parallel to non-housing growth on a campus, and also for the proposition that the zoning board can compel a university to house a certain percentage of students on campus. The decision of the district court was reversed in so far as it found constitutional violations in the Board of Zoning Adjustment Order and was otherwise affirmed.

Excerpts from the case:

The District's zoning scheme for universities, promulgated by the Zoning Commission pursuant to the authority granted by D.C. Code § 6-641 and codified at 11 District of Columbia Municipal Regulations ("DCMR") §§ 210, 302.2 & 507, permits university use as a matter of right in areas zoned for high-density commercial use. For land zoned residential or "special purpose," it permits university use as a special exception. GW's land evidently includes high-density commercial, special purpose, and residential portions. In the areas where university use is by special exception, the owner must secure permission for specific university projects in a two-stage application process. In the first stage, the university submits a "campus plan" that describes its general intentions for new land use over a substantial period (GW's preceding plan was for 15 years). On approval by the Board--an approval that can be subject to a set of conditions designed to minimize the impact of the proposed development--the campus plan "establishes distinct limitations within which all future construction must occur." Levy v. D.C. Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 570 A.2d 739, 748 (D.C. 1990). In the second stage, the BZA reviews individual projects that the university proposes to undertake, evaluating them both for consistency with the campus plan and the zoning regulations. See Draude v. D.C. Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 527 A.2d 1242, 1247-48 (D.C. 1987).

In both stages, the BZA has substantial, but not unbounded, discretion to reject or approve the university's application. It is instructed to make sure that any university use is located so that it is "not likely to become objectionable to neighboring property because of noise, traffic, number of students or other objectionable conditions." 11 DCMR § 210.2. When reviewing a special exception application for a university, the BZA is also to consider the policies of the so-called "District Elements of the [Comprehensive] Plan," id. § 210.7, a planning document setting out development policies for the District, 10 DCMR § 112.6(b). If the application meets these criteria--that is to say, the proposed use is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and is not likely to become objectionable to users of neighboring property--the Board "ordinarily must grant [the] application." Stewart v. D.C. Bd. of Zoning Adjustment, 305 A.2d 516, 518 (D.C. 1973).


Updated 6-30-16 PAB