Forever the Negotiator: Brzezinski in a Stalemate Over a Sidewalk

Bruce Wright, head of Fairfax's sidewalk committee, rides his bike on busy Spring Hill Road, where neighbors want a sidewalk built.
Bruce Wright, head of Fairfax's sidewalk committee, rides his bike on busy Spring Hill Road, where neighbors want a sidewalk built. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Looking back, the residents of McLean maybe should have known better.

After all, they were not dealing with just any Fairfax County resident. This was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hawkish former national security adviser who contended in his day with Leonid Brezhnev and Ayatollah Khomeini.

It was not so surprising, then, that what followed their neighborly request for an easement on his property for a sidewalk was a drawn-out negotiation complete with lengthy missives listing the points that must be addressed to make an "eventual face to face discussion truly productive."

Only in Washington could an overture for a sidewalk produce responses such as: "What commitments are envisaged, how guaranteed, and by whom regarding the preservation of our privacy by replacing new fencing, tall planting and/or brick wall, etc. What alternative proposals are there regarding the foregoing?"

At some point, it dawned on the residents that they were in the middle of the suburban version of a Cold War summit. One homeowners association member wrote to another in an e-mail: "Dr. B is treating this transaction as if he were negotiating a strategic arms treaty."

The saga of the sidewalk and the national security adviser is a tale of the changing Washington suburbs, where empty space is filling up with clumps of Italianate mansions, where new residents arrive with expectations such as sidewalks along narrow, winding roads hardly designed for them, much less for the commuting hordes.

In the middle of it all are longtime residents such as Brzezinski, who at 78 remains active at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the District. He bought his five-acre estate, with its relatively modest, older house, nearly 30 years ago. He doesn't much care for the mansions going up all around him, saying in an interview that they are "reflective of cultural pretension and pomposity" and "make the whole area look like a joke, a Disneyland imitation of the European aristocracy, without the land."

And he cannot entirely comprehend the clamor for "trails," the quaint term for sidewalks in the more rarefied corners of Fairfax.

Bruce Wright, chairman of Fairfax County's Trails and Sidewalks Committee, tried to explain: "You have people who moved into an area that was rural with little traffic and are now in the middle of a developing area . . . and it's understandable why they may not want a trail or sidewalk. But it's inevitable that we want these facilities for people. And it's a constant struggle."

The courting of Brzezinski began in late 2004, when Fairfax County Supervisor Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville) wrote him and his wife saying that the county hoped to build a sidewalk along Spring Hill Road between Lewinsville Road and Old Dominion Drive. The Brzezinski property is shielded from the road by a wooden fence and dense bushes and trees, the house out of view past a tennis court.

The developer of 18 $3 million fieldstone homes just south on Spring Hill Road was building a sidewalk in front of that property, which Fairfax now requires of all new subdivisions to make the county more walkable. County officials and community members thought it would be ideal to extend the sidewalk up to a small commercial area at the intersection of Old Dominion. This would enable residents to walk or bike along Spring Hill, a twisting, treacherous stretch.

But under Fairfax law, a homeowner's permission is needed for a sidewalk easement. In the Dranesville District alone, officials have been fighting two other extended battles for easement, including one on Georgetown Pike (Route 193).

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