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Op-ed piece, The Washington Post, 12/3/00

The City Where Done Deals Get Undone

It is said that politics is the art of the possible. In the District, it is the art of the unpredictable.

Political ambition--prodded by NIMBYs (not in my backyard) and BANANAs (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone)--creates an unstable business climate that looks inward to minor issues rather than outward toward the horizon of growth and progress.

Exhibit A: the disaster of Georgetown University's co-generation plant. The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) approved the idea in 1983 and again in 1990. The plant would have reduced air pollution, pollution from trucks and solid-waste production. Every government agency, from the EPA to the BZA, approved the plant.

But some residents of Georgetown went on the offensive, attacking the proposed plant on all fronts. In January 1993, a court of appeals rejected the last neighborhood appeal. But even as the university began moving dirt, one neighborhood activist declared, "This is far from over." She was right.

D.C. Council member John Ray, with his eyes on higher office, told then Mayor Sharon Kelly that the university's permit should be delayed until the environmental impact of the plant was studied, even though the EPA and the city already had done that. The D.C. Council then issued "emergency" legislation requiring a new round of environmental requirements. Stampeded by the unsupported argument that overhead power lines were a health peril, the council and the mayor decided to trash 10 years of effort. A federal lawsuit against the District followed.

The Georgetown plant debacle sums up the District's track record of bowing to small but politically influential pressure groups. Meanwhile, the broader issue of economic expansion falls by the wayside.

Exhibit B: Samaritan Inns spent millions to provide housing to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Without any government funding, Samaritan turned vacant buildings into inexpensive rooms for those who had turned their lives around and needed a place to live.

In 1993 Samaritan committed nearly $2 million to acquire and renovate Tabitha's House in the Brightwood neighborhood. Galvanized by demolition work, neighbors met with city officials, and a plan was put into effect to revoke Samaritan's permits.

That matter also ended up in federal court. Judge Ricardo M. Urbina's decision against the District and the individual officials involved detailed secret meetings, illegal notices and a disregard for the law by the project's opponents and city officials. Samaritan lost millions of dollars in donations and incurred increased construction and delay costs, but it was vindicated by a judgment against the District for damages and attorneys' fees. The problem is that the taxpayers end up holding the bag when the District's elected leaders ignore the law for political reasons.

Anywhere that cameras click, Mayor Williams can be seen insisting that the District should be the home of high-tech businesses. But when technology companies actually plunk money down to build high-tech hotels (a matter of right), D.C. planners change their minds. High-tech hotels house the equipment (and companies) that are the backbone of the Information Age.

The District is entitled to control its land use. What the political leadership does not seem to understand is that land use and related permitting decisions must be consistent.

The mayor can attend high-tech seminars and talk to tech executives, but they will watch what he does, not what he says. The executive leadership of the District has shown that it will bow to pressure and revoke valid permits even after construction has begun. This makes major investors who would like to do business in the District leery. They can't know for sure if their businesses will become a target of some political protest and subsequently be shut down after construction already has begun.

Until the political leadership of the District--and the rule of law --are consistent and reliable, businesses will stay away from Washington--and the city's residents, consumers and small businesses will pay the price.

-- Robert J. Morgan

is vice president and general manager of American Tower Corp; his company is suing the District, alleging that the city violated its rights in revoking a permit to build a telecommunications tower in Northwest.

2000 The Washington Post Company

Reply:

Mark David Richards, letter to the editor, 12/20/00

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