Somerset is just fine with that.
“I think it’s the best place to live probably in the world but definitely the East Coast,” says the town mayor, Jeff Slavin, strolling through the early fall foliage in his sweats and sneakers. “The big challenge is maintaining this oasis. That’s what I first said when I was running 12 years ago.”
Slavin is joined by the rest of the Somerset walking group, which meets three times a week to stroll the 0.28 square miles that make up the verdant Montgomery County town nestled between Bethesda and Chevy Chase, bordered by Wisconsin Avenue on the east and Little Falls Parkway on the west.
Somerset has defended and promoted its small-town charm since its incorporation in 1906. Residents rallied in 1949 for a public school, now Somerset Elementary. The town has a stringent tree-removal policy to protect the foliage and, in the day of digital, has fought to keep its blue U.S. Postal Service mailboxes.
Many of the town’s fights, though, are to keep things out: clinics, condominiums and traffic.
The community famously voted to de-annex some of its own land in 1988 when a developer began building the Somerset House, a luxury condominium on the south edge of town.
“They are aggravating people,” says one of the project’s developers, Albert H. Small. “They object to everything.”
Walking on Warwick Place, Slavin explains what it takes to keep the town so charming.
He points out the many houses that were rebuilt after being razed. “This is a teardown. This is a teardown. This is a teardown,” he says. There are still some low-slung, Mid-Century homes complete with carports, but they shrink into the trees compared with the larger, more-modern homes.
Slavin, a licensed real estate professional, moved to Somerset 14 years ago from Friendship Heights. His own home on Warwick, a stone cottage with a landscaped garden, was built in 1938. It’s since been updated: He added a garage and changed the driveway but kept the home’s character.
The community is made up of single-family homes, and Slavin says it’s important that they maintain their historic charm, even as vintage homes are demolished and replaced with larger ones. “Some of the older, long-term residents are probably still concerned about it,” says Slavin, but it hasn’t escalated. “When the people move in and they’re such great people and part of the community, it kind of melts away.”
Monthly council meetings are held in the Town Hall, a farmhouse-red building with white trim and a front porch. At the October meeting, Slavin sits at a table with Vice President Marnie Shaul to his right and Richard Charnovich, the town’s manager and clerk, on his left. The four other council members complete the row. Townspeople trickle in, many bearing architectural plans for proposed changes to their homes.