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Clarification of Rules Applying to Human Occupancy of Penthouses in District of Columbia Buildings

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. NORTON. Madam Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

I rise in support of H.R. 4192, and I appreciate the initiative of the chairman, Chairman Issa, who has just spoken, who has always observed the self-government rights of the District of Columbia, and puts forward this bill in the same spirit of home rule.

This legislation will amend the Height Act of 1910, which limits the height of all building in the District of Columbia. The District is prohibited, under the Home Rule Act, from permitting any structure anywhere in the city in excess of the height limitations contained in the Height Act.

The current law permits structures above the top story of buildings, including so-called penthouses, to exceed the height limitations, but no human occupancy is permitted in mechanical penthouses, and it gives the District the authority to set the maximum height for such structures.

Currently, the structures have a height limit of 18.6 feet. The legislation will allow human occupancy of these penthouses. In addition, the legislation will mandate a 20-foot maximum height, one story, and a 1 to 1 setback for penthouses. The absolute height of any penthouse used for human occupancy will be 20 feet.

I thank Chairman Issa for examining the Height Act when he saw that it had received little congressional oversight in the century of its existence.

I supported Chairman Issa's request that the District of Columbia and the National Capital Planning Commission conduct a joint study of the Height Act because more than 100 years had passed since the heights of D.C. buildings were systematically discussed in the Halls of Congress.

The District and the NCPC came to different conclusions as to whether or how the Height Act should be amended, but agreed with respect to removing the prohibition on human occupancy of penthouses, and setting a maximum height of 20 feet, or one story, for penthouses.

The mayor and D.C. Council expressed divergent views, but I encouraged them to work together to find common ground. I am pleased that the mayor and council chairman reached an agreement with regard to penthouses, and that agreement, in essence, is before the Congress today.

Under today's bill, the city, through its local zoning process, will have the home rule ability to permit human occupancy of penthouses if it would desire. However, this bill is not a mandate directing the city to make any changes to penthouses or to its existing comprehensive plan, or local zoning laws, more generally.

Again, I would like to thank Chairman Issa for working to give the District of Columbia more authority. I also deeply appreciate the chairman's work in so many other ways, for budget autonomy, and his strong support on many occasions for home rule, which he has raised as a factor in connection with the Height Act as well.

I support the passage of this bill.

Madam Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.


Ms. NORTON. Madam Speaker, I just want to thank the gentleman for speaking in favor of the bill.

I understand his concern. I do want to indicate that no exception is really being made in this bill. The height can go no higher than it can go right now, and somebody in the District of Columbia can't make an exception because the Congress of the United States controls heights still under this bill.

Of course, we have our local zoning laws in the District, so there are many, many parts of the District where you can't begin to go as high as the Height Act.

I am a third-generation Washingtonian, and I must say that I adore the residential quality of this city, which is essentially built on the notion of private homes and not large-scale apartments. The city really did not want to dislodge that, and that has not occurred here.

There may still be some disagreement among residents, but I do know that when the council, which expressed some real disquiet at any change, has finally been able to come to an agreement, that there is not enough of a change here to warrant dissent within the city and had come to an agreement that--and when, in addition, those who have been most adamant about maintaining the Height Act, including the organization which has been the real guardian of the Height Act, the Committee of 100, says it has no objection to this compromise, I think we have finally reached a compromise of the kind that we would like to see more often occur right here in the House of Representatives.

And with that, I yield back the balance of my time.


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