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Building a Retaining Wall in a Historic District in Washington, DC

Oct 24, 2011 | Services

For folks who live in a historic district in Washington, DC, there are factors which complicate the replacement of their retaining walls, particularly those walls facing the sidewalk in the “Right of Way”. First, for any retaining wall over 36” in the District, permits must be obtained, and if it is deemed necessary, a structural engineer may need to approve the drawings for the retaining wall construction.  Next, if the retaining wall is on public space, then the homeowner will need a Right of Way permit.  In securing the right of way permit, the District will require the homeowner to post a bond, which can be redeemed 90 days after the final inspection.   Simultaneously, if the homeowner lives in a historic district, then approval for the project must be secured through the local historic district association.  Finally, once all permitting and bonding is secured, the project can commence.

Recently, Johnson’s Landscaping Service, Inc. secured permits for the replacement of a retaining wall in the Mount Pleasant Historic District in Northwest, Washington, DC.  In this case, it was a stipulation of the historic association that the wall stone match the wall stone used in many of the walls throughout the neighborhood.  This required obtaining a specific stone at “not so local” quarry because this type of stone is no longer quarried locally.  Once the footers are built for the wall, typically the District requires a “footing inspection”, which is the reason for measuring the depth of the footers.   In this picture, you can also note the location of utility lines within the footer.  Miss Utility was contacted prior to digging, and yet we discovered some other lines while digging (possibly coming from the neighbor).  No damage was done to these lines.

building a stone wall with stairs   drainage pipe

After a successful footer inspection, the concrete can be poured and the wall can be built.  After completion, a permitting representative will return to the site for the final inspection.  Once the final inspection is complete, then the homeowner will have 90 days to expect a return of their bond from the DCRA.  We recommend the homeowner be vigilant about getting that money returned to them, because we have encountered cases where the return of the bond took longer than the 90 days.

All in all, these projects can be completed within code and to the specifications of the local historic district.   Homeowners would do well to work with contractors who are well aware of the requirements and specifications of the District.

stone wall with stairs   stone wall with stars near sidewalk

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About the Author

Matt Johnson grew up in a family of landscapers and gardeners as the grandson of Raymond Johnson (Founder, 1933, Johnson's Florist and Garden Center) and son of James and Carol Johnson (Founders, 1960, Johnson's Landscaping Service, Inc.). Since 2007, he has led Johnson's Landscaping Service with his brother, Charlie.  Matt and his wife Jaime live in Petworth in Northwest DC with their 3 sons and 2 big dogs.

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