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A small town that wants its residents to be heard

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON GROVE - The new chairs arrived one morning last month on a truck from Baltimore. One hundred folding chairs for the town hall, with sturdy backs and smooth green cushions, brought in to replace the rusting metal ones that have served this place for what seems like forever.

It took two years to pick them out. Town Clerk Kathryn L. Lehman ordered a whole bunch of sample seats, had people come in and sit on them and asked their opinions. Everyone, it seemed, got a say.

If it took two years to choose chairs, imagine how long it takes to settle the big stuff.

Welcome to Washington Grove, a 225-acre town hidden in thick woods not far from the bustling strip malls and interstates of Gaithersburg, a town that takes this whole "one-man, one-vote" concept of democracy extremely seriously. It is the only community in the state with a New England-style town meeting form of government, even if it's a modified Maryland version of that grass-roots, seat-of-your-pants management by the people.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to make your feelings known," said Ann Briggs, 72, a former mayor who has lived in "the grove" for more than four decades. "What I say all too often is, 'Why don't they do something about it?' In this town, 'they' is us."

On Saturday night, many of the town's more than 500 residents will gather for this year's annual meeting in McCathran Hall, a 103-year-old circular structure with high ceilings, spinning fans and wood paneling that evoke an old camp, which is exactly where the grove has its roots.

They will vote on the $450,000 budget, hear the vote totals from that day's mayoral and council races and listen to a speech by Mayor John G. Compton, who will expound on the state of the town. Afterward, there will be a party - with beer home-brewed by Compton, who is on the ballot for a seventh one-year term.

"Whatever the town council does can be overruled by a town meeting," said Compton, who by day runs a genetic testing firm. "A town meeting can be called on anything."

'A little quirky'

Lehman, who grew up in Washington Grove, concedes: "It's a little quirky." But many of those who live here say they wouldn't live anywhere else.

The town began in 1873 as a Methodist campground for Washingtonians in search of a site for religious retreats. The spot was perfect - right off a new line of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that stretched past Gaithersburg. A train stop still stands at the foot of town, allowing for quick, car-free commutes to the capital.

Because the town began as a camp, it was populated at first with tents, their pitched roofs mimicked when the first permanent cottages were built. The streets radiated off a circle used for preaching.

At the close of the 19th century, when the land was fully laid out, the roads in front of the homes were designed for foot traffic and those in back for vehicles, according to a history of the town published on its Web site. That unusual design still exists today, sometimes making it difficult for delivery trucks, visitors - or worse, emergency vehicles - to find an address among the 220 homes.

"It still looks pretty much like a summer camp," said Mary Challstrom, the town's treasurer whose husband is a former mayor. "You either love it or you think it's trashy."

Ellsworth Briggs, who like his wife, Ann, also is a former mayor, discovered the town when he visited a friend who rented a place here more than 41 years ago. "I came in and said to myself, 'My goodness, what is this place?'" he recalled. Briggs told his friend to call if a house ever came up for sale. A year later, they bought one for $17,400. Briggs, a teacher at the time, had to scrape and borrow for the down payment.

They would go on to raise their four children in the home they bought those decades ago.

'They never leave'

"The vast majority of people who want to come here, stay," he said. "They never leave."

Though it looks like a page out of a history book, Washington Grove is under the same modern pressures as the rest of Montgomery County and its vast suburbs. Real estate prices have skyrocketed.

A few homes have sold for more than half a million dollars in recent months. And many of the grove's houses are tiny - under 1,000 square feet - and on equally tiny lots, some under 3,000 square feet.

That means the push is on to expand existing homes, because there's money to be made. The push comes from outside, too - from developers who want to build McMansions on the town's borders while the town struggles to push back, saying maybe it doesn't want to look like everywhere else.

Washington Grove has its own powers over planning and zoning. Major renovation projects often come under its rules - rules about setbacks, height limits and more.

Residents worry about what will happen to the town's historic character and about something they call "mansion-ization," the construction of giant homes that could look out of place where anything built in the last 50 years often does.

Debate over control

There has been a debate brewing in town over how much control the town should be able to exert and how much should be left to the discretion of the homeowner.

"The principle of Washington Grove is as little intrusion as possible and that comes up against preserving what we value in this town," the mayor said.

An ordinance failed a few years ago that would have required residents to get permits before knocking down trees in the community - old oaks that rise 70, 80 feet or more. "It didn't work," said resident Missy Yachup, recalling the heated conversations. People can still cut their trees down at will.

Compton said in the next few months he and others will survey residents to see how much control they wish to exert over whether large houses are built in the very old-fashioned-looking town, to see what restrictions residents will feel comfortable with.

"If they don't feel strongly," he said, "it's a dead duck."

Said Yachup: "Change doesn't happen [quickly] in a place like this because everyone gets a vote. You can imagine a thing like mansionization if the chairs took two years."

Special town meetings can be called by the council or by residents with 25 signatures on a petition. Two years ago, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, residents in a special session passed a resolution against pre-emptive military strikes. More recently, a meeting was called to hire a land-use lawyer to fight a proposed development that would put new and very different houses across a narrow road from town. The town has successfully lobbied to shrink the development and push it back a bit, the mayor said.

"When the town grew up, there was nothing on any side of it except the railroad track," Compton said. "Over the years everything's been developed."

The Shady Grove Metro stop is less than two miles away. Interstate 270 rumbles in the distance. Traffic from the Inter-County Connector - if it is built - might be audible in town, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Still, little Washington Grove hangs on. This is a place that hosts a music festival kicked off with a potluck breakfast, a Fourth of July parade led by the mayor, in costume, riding a tractor and a Labor Day weekend of events that range from sack races to softball tosses. The field day includes a grove version of a triathalon, which includes paddling around the town lake in an inner tube, riding five miles around the town on bicycle and capping off with a road race.

"Everything around us will change," Challstrom said, "but this little oasis will remain."

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