D.C. Council chair in trouble over fence

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The man who would be mayor of the nation’s capital may have trapped himself behind a 6-foot-high aluminum fence he can neither explain nor justify, an unlikely and possibly costly albatross as he weighs a bid against an unpopular political incumbent.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray has enjoyed the image of a distinguished elder statesman, that is until late last year when he came under scrutiny by city officials for allowing a mega-developer and close personal friend to oversee unauthorized renovations at his $667,000 home in the Hillcrest section of Southeast D.C.

It was a role reversal for Mr. Gray and his much younger political adversary, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, whom Mr. Gray rarely misses an opportunity to criticize for wielding power with an air of privilege. Mr. Fenty has been a frequent punching bag for Mr. Gray, from his hoarding of baseball tickets and personal use of the trappings of office, to the largesse the D.C. government has shown his friends.

But it is Mr. Gray, who has bristled at suggestions of wrongdoing, who now faces fines of $300 a day if he fails to file for a permit for the fence erected at his home in 2008 by an unlicensed contractor who bypassed building codes, according to a letter last week from the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT).

The situation is not uncommon for homeowners that run afoul of building codes. But when three months of written requests by city officials did not resolve the matter, Mr. Gray’s case caught the attention of the Office of Attorney General, and prompted Mr. Gray to hire former D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti to represent him.

A March 4 letter from Lamont Regester, chief DDOT inspector, cites a D.C. regulation that says permits for fences higher than 42 inches are granted “only when specifically approved by the mayor.” DDOT gave Mr. Gray seven days to apply for a public space permit or remove the fence. Once he applies, DDOT’s Public Space Committee also must approve the application based on “neighborhood input, sight lines, need, feasible alternatives and impact on utilities, trees or design.”

Doxie A. McCoy, communications director for Mr. Gray, said in an e-mail the “chairman’s attorney continues to work on all facets of the regulatory matters involving his house.” She did not elaborate.

Mr. Gray’s permit problem is the most recent issue to complicate his pending decision to run against Mr. Fenty in November.

A Clarus Research Group poll in November showed Mr. Gray to be the more appealing candidate of the two and The Washington Post editorial page has all but begged him to run. Yet Mr. Gray has been slow to throw his hat in the ring.

The fence issue has been brewing since Dec. 4, when Lennox Douglas, chief of permits for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), sent Mr. Gray a letter pointing to code violations for home improvements. The improvements were arranged by W. Christopher Smith Jr., a 15-year friend of Mr. Gray‘s, whose construction and development firms control more than $300 million in projects east of the Anacostia River in Mr. Gray’s ward.

In a series of articles beginning in November, The Washington Times exposed the work at Mr. Gray’s home, done in some cases by companies not licensed to do business in the District. At first, Mr. Gray denied the repairs, then he confirmed that Mr. Smith was overseeing a home renovation that was put on hold, then he produced invoices for specific repairs that led to questions about whether he received favors from Mr. Smith.

On Dec. 21, Mr. Gray’s attorney informed DCRA that an electrical contractor associated with Mr. Smith’s construction firm recently obtained permits for work at Mr. Gray’s house - work that was completed last summer. He acknowledged that the fence, a stone retaining wall and two stone columns, were installed without permits by two companies - one of which lacked a D.C. contractor’s license - and said the applications would be filed in a week.

More than two weeks later, on Jan. 11, DCRA’s permits chief wrote to Mr. Gray’s attorney that “DCRA has still not received those permit applications.” Ten days later, a DDOT permits manager also advised Mr. Gray’s attorney his client was required to apply for approval of the fence and retaining wall and warned that he was close to passing the deadline for the committee’s March 25 meeting.

That deadline has since passed.

On Feb. 2, the Office of Attorney General told Mr. Gray’s attorney in an e-mail that “while awaiting resolution of the public space issue at DDOT, your client’s contractor should go ahead and submit to DCRA all other items on the Plan Corrections list,” which is required for fences more than 42 inches high. Mr. Gray’s fence, which surrounds his 12,000-square-foot corner lot, measures 72 inches high.

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