Jaws dropped on Tuesday when D.C. Council member Mary Cheh made clear she wants to do to private real estate development what was done to the city’s largest hometown industry.
Cheh is no longer merely pondering introduction of legislation adding layers of regulatory review for moderately large residential construction projects, as she had begun musing less than two weeks ago. This week she introduced a bill designed to mimic the city’s notoriously dysfunctional alcoholic beverage licensing process for bars and restaurants.
Someone might want to remind her how well that turned out.
Cheh wants both self-identified citizen and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) groups to have 120 days to weigh in on project approvals that include multiple city agencies. ANCs alone are given an opportunity to offer an advisory opinion on approvals required by zoning variance requests and those for commercial and mixed-use projects. Cheh’s bill would subject all “matter-of-right” residential buildings of more than 150,000 square feet to this new auxiliary review obstacle, in addition to commercial or mixed-use projects larger than 50,000 square feet.
Her proposal will burden affected agencies with the task of specifically responding to each objection and add delays of at least half a year. In the business world, that’s an eternity – and will weaken development partnership interest in the District, threaten project financing and loan arrangements, endanger retail tenant commitments, increase the overall cost of doing business and slow the city’s growth and lessen its economic vitality.
These are apparently considerations of little interest to D.C.’s “Queen of the NIMBYs.”
Cheh held a Council committee hearing on March 27 to examine broadening public intervention in “matter-of-right” development projects not requiring special review due to a zoning variance request or exception. She heard solely from three development objectors from her district fighting an upscale 263-unit residential building in Chevy Chase on upper Connecticut Avenue, N.W. Cheh repeatedly bemoaned that they were unable to directly intervene in the city’s zoning, design and permitting procedures. They commiserated on a citywide restructuring of the process.
Scant consultation was sufficient for Cheh to immediately call for new regulatory protocols. Utilizing her trademark worry-about-the-implications-later approach, Cheh wasn’t concerned with real-world business practicalities.
Nor does Cheh seem to care about the extraordinary costs for private and public sectors and case litigation expense, or city agency staffing requirements. If successful, her efforts will gum up government with the same havoc-wreaking interference by small groups that is the signature of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) licensing.
Having conducted a lonely and unsuccessful fight opposing initial reforms of alcohol licensing approved by her colleagues last December, Cheh now wants to mandate the “ABC-ization” of construction.
It’s no wonder why the District holds the title for least business-friendly state jurisdiction in the country.
News that this misguided maven of regulatory ridiculousness had dreamed up a new scheme to make doing business in the District even more difficult and capricious never arrives as a surprise. The stunner is that she doesn’t comprehend the city’s evolving zeitgeist or the lessons to be learned from a broke down and out-of-balance hospitality business licensing system that her colleagues grapple with how best to repair.
Regulatory reform is an intensifying focus of other city officials, and is now the mainstream position of D.C. Council colleagues and competitive political candidates.
The District is evolving into a vibrant, confident, upbeat world-class city and residents expect our politicians to encourage continued development, economic expansion, modern regulations and commonsense governance.
It’s time for Mary Cheh to get off her carnival bandwagon battling economic development and equitable application of city laws.
The D.C. Council should quickly dispense with her proposal.
Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.