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Emotional Investment

A Family's Decision to Sell Vienna's 'Midgetville' Ignites Bitter Opposition

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page VA16

"Midgetville" doesn't look like a place over which a war is raging.

The eight acres along the Washington & Old Dominion trail in Vienna, overgrown with wild grapevines and ivy and populated by deer and foxes, are sheltered by towering pines, tulip poplars and mulberry trees.

The Wedderburn family's decision to sell Midgetville -- eight overgrown acres along the Washington & Old Dominion trail in Vienna -- has sparked an emotional battle. (Dayna Smith - The Washington Post)

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Members of the family that has owned the land for more than 100 years still live there quietly in aged cottages scattered throughout the property. The diminutive dwellings have spawned an urban legend that they are the homes of midgets -- hence the nickname.

But the family's decision to sell the land to a developer has sparked an emotional battle in the Fairfax County neighborhood -- and within the family itself.

Some homeowners in the vicinity say the proposed development ignores Midgetville's rich history and would destroy an oasis in their midst.

"It's basically been untouched for 70 years," said David Levey, a resident of a nearby neighborhood who is leading opposition to the project. "It's an absolute jewel of old Vienna."

So far, neighbors have managed to delay county approval of the project. A Planning Commission vote, set for June, has been postponed until later this year.

But descendants of the newspaper publisher who purchased the land more than a century ago now want to sell it to a developer for $4 million, and they angrily accuse neighbors and county officials of interfering with their property rights.

Beset by illness, struggling to afford the $14,000 annual property tax bills and tired of teenage vandals, the family members say the land has become a financial and emotional burden.

"Everybody has decided that the history stuff is more important than what reality is," said Jane Nixon Leppin, a great-granddaughter of Alexander J. Wedderburn, publisher of the Alexandria Item, who purchased the property in 1892. It is now a wedge of land bordered by the W&OD trail on the north and Cedar Lane on the east.

"I understand that none of us likes change, and this county has gone through a lot of change," Leppin said in a recent interview.

But, said Leppin, who owns the land with her three sisters, her family should not be made to pay for residents' uneasiness with the rapid disappearance of undeveloped land in Fairfax.

"It breaks my heart to see it go," said Leppin, who is also battling her own daughter, who opposes the sale of the family property. "But it's going to have to go, because my family cannot support it anymore."

She began to weep.

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