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St. Thomas’ Faces a Devil of a Time Building its New Church; Stalled by Stop Work Order

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the May issue 2017 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

If the devil is in the details, then ever more so when a church takes up battle against its neighbors– who, in turn, fear a congregation they believe being led by Mammon in the guise of real estate.

That’s the story line for a continuing saga at Church and 18th Streets, NW, where, in the latest plot twist, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, led by the Rev. Alex Dyer, is hitting back hard against a stop work order on construction of a new church and boutique condominium building at the site. The condo portion of the project was included to fund construction of the new church building and to help fill church coffers to ensure financial stability well into the future.

The stop work order was issued April 20 by the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) in the wake of a zoning variance for the project vacated by the DC Court of Appeals in an April 12 opinion.

DCRA oversees all construction permitting in the District and is responsible for enforcement

Dyer says the stop work order was both a “gross oversight by DCRA and the result of a surprise move by the Dupont Circle Citizens Association” (DCCA), the plaintiff along with a group of Church Street neighbors, in the lawsuit that challenged the zoning variance granted to the St. Thomas project by DC’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA).

But a DCRA spokesperson tells the InTowner that an outside group like DCCA cannot dictate enforcement.

“Our work is to enforce zoning,” the spokesperson said. “If a project is not in compliance — even if that is the result of a vacated zoning decision — that project is automatically not in compliance and enforcement on our end kicks in.”

The church and DCCA have been in negotiation over a new zoning variance since the Appeals Court ruling. Both sides declined to speak publicly about the details of the negotiation.

For now, the idled project is costing the church thousands of dollars a day, Dyer says, money that might otherwise be spent “on making the city a better place to live.” At the time the InTowner was preparing for publication, he was hoping that the stop work order would be lifted, at least temporarily, as the result of an administrative hearing on the matter that the church requested from BZA and the Court.

But DCCA and its ally, Church Street Neighbors, immediately filed a protest brief to keep the stop work order in place. They assert that St. Thomas is asking the Court to modify its judgment without identifying any point of law or fact “overlooked or misapprehended by the Court.”

What’s more, reads the protest brief, the church is unlikely to prevail on remand “because the variance sought by the Parish is primarily intended for commercial, for-profit purposes, and, in any instance, the Parish recently sold two-thirds of the subject property to an affiliate of the Developer and therefore is not entitled to apply for –- let alone obtain –- variance relief for the property that it sold.”

Finally, as DCCA had warned St. Thomas all along, the parish and the developer began construction after their lawsuit challenging the zoning variance was filed and thus proceeded at their own risk.

But Dyer says the church has made many concessions to DCCA and the neighborhood in general throughout the seven-year process to obtain building permits. “The permits were valid, the developer decided to proceed, and we followed the developer.”

“We are people of faith,” continued Dyer, “We took a leap of faith with this project.” Continuing construction delays, he says, “could deplete church resources,” but he is even more concerned about the morale of parishioners, who have waited 47 years for a new place of worship after the original church building that faced 18th Street burned to the ground as the result of arson in the middle of the night.

“The bureaucracy of the District could fail this project,” Dyer says.

[Editor’s Note: During the course of what Dyer refers to as “the seven-year process” (actually, eight years), the InTowner has been chronicling the ups and downs of this story, particularly as the design and massing aspects wended their way through the Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO) and then through the final arbiter, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). Our first report was in March of 2010, followed by six lead news stories between October 2012 and August 2015. Starting with the August 2015 story, it and preceding ones each contain live links taking readers back to the preceding stories.]

*Associate Editor William G. Schulz, a resident of Dupont Circle since the 1980s, has been a journalist specializing in science and investigative reporting for over 30 years.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.