District of Columbia

No Construction Permit for Mausoleums in DC, Even in Historic District

When Benjamin C. Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, died on October 21, 2014, he was buried in a plot in Oak Hill Cemetery. The plot was purchased by the Bradlee family ten years prior to his death because the cemetery was running out of room.  

Oak Hill Cemetery is a nearly 170 year-old rural cemetery nestled in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. To solve the issues of decreasing availability, the cemetery has begun renovation efforts to create additional burial sites. One of these renovation projects has been to sell new mausoleum plots on one side of the cemetery's entrance Ellipse.

Shortly after Bradlee's internment, Bradlee's widow, Sally Quinn, received a letter from the cemetery advertising that new plots were available for purchase. Quinn decided to buy one of the new plots and began working with an architect to create a mausoleum that could house Bradlee, herself, their son, and their son's family.  The Bradlee family mausoleum is the first mausoleum to be built in the entrance Ellipse. Bradlee was re-interred in the mausoleum about one year after his death. 

Oak Hill's decision to sell mausoleum space in the cemetery's entrance Ellipse is being opposed by several advocacy groups, including the Cultural Landscape Foundation, interested in preserving the historical integrity of the Ellipse. Prior to the construction of Bradlee's mausoleum, the Ellipse was an oval shaped lawn area with only a few statues, a fountain, and Renwick Chapel, which is a registered historic site. The Foundation argues that placing the mausoleums there "disrupts the historic entrance ensemble, thereby diminishing the integrity of the setting of the Renwick Chapel, the gatehouse, and the Ellipse. The mausoleum also adversely impacts the scenic views once afforded from the elevated plateau into the terraced grounds below." 


In the fall of 2015, the District of Colombia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs found that the mausoleum lacked the required construction permit. The District of Colombia Municipal Regulations (DCMR) Construction Codes state that a permit is required for the construction of any building or structure within the city limits of the District of Colombia. Furthermore, work that is completed in a historic district requires review of the design by several historic preservation oversight organizations. Considering that both Georgetown is a historic district requiring permits for even small construction projects normally exempted in non-historic districts and the historic status of Renwick Chapel, the city also felt the mausoleum was lacking the necessary historic oversight. 

After the city's initial determination, Oak Hill met with the city in an effort to get the city to reconsider its initial interpretation. The city reexamined the interpretation, found it had been in error, and then issued a policy statement, which "codified a longtime written understanding," of exempting mausoleums under 250 square feet from requiring a construction permit. 

However, advocacy groups felt the city was violating the procedural requirements of regulatory rule making and skirting the laws designed to protect the historic nature of Georgetown. The advocacy groups filed an appeal with the District of Colombia's Office of Administrative Hearings, and in September of this year, an administrative judge dismissed the case. The advocacy groups are now examining whether they have any other methods of recourse. Depending on what the order says, one avenue may be to appeal the final order to the District of Colombia Court of Appeals

In the summer of 2016, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs did propose a new rule that would add "mausoleum" to the construction code definitions and alter the District of Colombia Municipal Regulations to specifically exempt mausoleums under 250 square feet from requiring construction permits. The proposed rule was open for comments from the public for thirty days, ending on August 8, 2016. The final rule has not yet been adopted. 

Thus, as it stands right now, construction permits are not required for mausoleums in Washington, DC, even in a historic district. 

 Rebecca Daddino