The Rezone Zone

A neighborhood leader wonders what it takes to win friends and influence people at City Hall.

IN THE SETTLING dust of Strippergate, have political contributions emerged as the better option to getting service at City Hall? Well, says Georgetown Community Council Chair Allan Phillips, "that's the impression I'm getting." Such talk is mostly the banter of pundits, letter writers, and radio talk-show callers, the predictable fallout to claims that City Council members aresurprise!doling out legislation according to a constituent's money and clout. But Phillips says he seriously considered the prospect of such contributions if they could speed along his group's ongoing land-use skirmishes in G-town. Phillips wryly notes that his people don't have the thousands to spend on candidates that millionaire strip-club owner Frank Colacurcio Jr. did while getting his twice-rejected parking lot rezone approved in June (before having that approval overturned this week). As a consequence, Phillips claims his entreaties have gotten "blown off" by council members. "What I get from Judy Nicastro's office, for instance, is that all she can do is make lawsthat if DCLU [the Department of Design, Construction, and Land Use] doesn't want to enforce them, that's really not her responsibility. What's the point of being chairman of the Land Use Committee if you can't speak up on our behalf?"

Nicastro, who received more than $17,000 in Colacurcio-related re-election donations prior to spearheading his Lake City club's rezone approval, says she's not for sale to anyoneColacurcio or Phillips. Her office and DCLU insist they are working with the Georgetown council to correct the land misuse, which, though it has gone on for years, is hard to miss. In the midst of a modest, tree-crowded residential area along Ellis Avenue South, zoned Lowrise 1 for single-family and small multifamily residences, an office and a jumble of heavy equipment and dump trucks overflow a corner lot leased by Active Environmental, a company that unearths and removes buried fuel tanks. The firm has been at the site since 1999, in violation of land-use law, DCLU now agrees. Also, on a separately owned private lot next door, Phillips maintains, the owner is running a small business illegally out of a home studio, although DCLU does not agree. The conflicts are in part the result of ever-changing residential and commercial uses in Georgetown, an economically depressed neighborhood that some argue is more industrial than residential. The two disputed Ellis Avenue properties, in fact, are just across the roadway from other businesses and Boeing Field, where big jets seem close enough to touch as they loft in for a landing.

THE TWO SITES were once commercially zonedthe fuel-tank removal firm's office is itself a former gas station, and the residential site next door is an erstwhile neighborhood grocery, its faded lettering exposed as the old store is being turned into a town house. (A new duplex is also being built on the back of the lot.) The historic commercial uses have since been retired, and the neighborhood and City Hall are just catching up to the changes, sparked by the complaints of Phillips and others.

"To us, this is the strip club in our backyard," says Phillips. "But we keep getting told something different every time a deadline comes up." And they don't have ex-governors to lobby City Hall for relief, he says cuttingly, referring to former Gov. Al Rosellini's lobbying on behalf of Colacurcio.

Jill Berkey, Nicastro's legislative aide, shakes her head when told of Phillips' gripes. She's not hearing similar where-do-we-go-to-donate jibes from others with rezoning problems, she says. But she's surprised that Phillips, most of all, is even suggesting it. He's getting what help Nicastro can give, she says. "Maybe he's complaining because he doesn't have the result he wants right now," Berkey says. The office follows up on complaints, but often people call the council rather than DCLU simply because they don't know the process. "We're the policy side, not the enforcement side," she says. Berkey has monitored the exchanges between Phillips and DCLU and was familiar with the case when asked. "I've had many conversations with Mr. Phillips," she says pointedly.

DCLU director Diane Sugimura, also familiar with the dispute, says that so far no one has dropped the name Colacurcio to get the department's attention, positively or negatively. (DCLU actually rejected the strip club's parking rezone, resulting in Colacurcio's appeal to the council.) Phillips' complaints over the Georgetown properties are inching forward, and the landowner and the tank- removal firm have now been told to desist, the department says. The duplex site next door also has been hit with an unrelated stop-work order, due to what Sugimura says is a structural depth miscalculation by the developer, which both sides are trying to resolve. DCLU inspector Clay Thompson says he earlier notified the tank firm that use of the property as an office and for outdoor storage is simply not allowed and issued an official notice of the misuse last week. But the company now has opted to fight back. "Active Environmental has decided to try to establish the use," says Thompson, "even though I suggested that it was very unlikely that this use would ever be allowed."

NEITHER THE LANDOWNER nor a company spokesperson could be reached for comment. But should the tank firm lose its fight with DCLU, it could stretch things out by requesting an appeal hearing and, later, even petition the City Council for a favorable reversal, much like the strip club did. Now it's Phillips shaking his head. "I hope I don't sound like a raving maniac," says Phillips, a town-car service driver who is new to his community-leadership jobhe was voted into office while away on vacation. Likely echoing community leaders everywhere, he says, "These neighborhood disputes are very frustrating. You just wait forever." All he wants, he says, after witnessing the council's devotion to furthering the cause of nude dancing, "is for City Hall to pay the same attention to us," clothed or otherwise.

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