Forever the Negotiator: Brzezinski in a Stalemate Over a Sidewalk

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).

For more than half a year after DuBois's first letter, there was little communication, according to the file of correspondence in her office, and several calls to the Brzezinskis went unreturned. In July, a neighborhood representative, Michael Fruin, called Brzezinski's son, a Washington lawyer, who put in touch with his father. Fruin reported to others that Brzezinski was concerned about compensation and privacy.

Fruin wrote a letter addressing the concerns. Based on the assessed value of the Brzezinskis' land -- $1.7 million, not including a house worth $489,000 -- the county could offer about $19,000 for an easement on the 240-foot-long strip. An easement would not preclude future subdivision (the land can be split for five homes). Fruin wrote that it would enhance the land's value, because a developer would be spared the cost of building the sidewalk required by law.

Brzezinski was not satisfied. He responded, asking, among other things, why the easement compensation wasn't based on the "actual selling price" of area homes; whether additional bushes and fences would be installed; whether the county would compensate him for the "cost of the needed professional advice." Fruin responded that compensation would be "equitable and fair" and that landscape screening would be replaced.

Then, in September, came Brzezinski's lengthiest missive, with eight demands, including a question about liability and a request for a "properly scaled drawing" of the sidewalk.

"As you can see, there are a number of complex issues that have to be evaluated in some detail," he concluded. "And there will be more, once experts and lawyers have been consulted, as will need to be by all concerned."

Fruin wrote back in October, saying that the community groups couldn't afford a scaled drawing but including a rough sketch. There would be no liability risk for the trail, he added. DuBois weighed in with her own letter, noting that if the Brzezinskis decided to subdivide, they would be required to put in a sidewalk at their expense.

Brzezinski's final letter came a week later, demanding a proposal with, among other things, a specific compensation sum and a detailed plan for a fence and greenery.

The only communication since has been a phone message from DuBois's office in January, requesting a meeting, which has gone unreturned. Community members have more or less given up. "They are under no obligation to do anything," said Jane Edmondson, head of the Lewinsville Coalition, a collection of homeowners groups.

Hugh Neighbour, another McLean resident, was less resigned, saying that a sidewalk would make it easier for children to ride bikes on errands and thereby help keep them fit. He raised eminent domain as a possibility.

"It improves his property. It's not like they're putting in a high-rise next to his house -- it's human friendly," he said. "I respect his obstreperousness, but I would have expected better of him, and of the county."

Brzezinski said he is open to negotiations. If his latest questions are answered -- with real blueprints, not the "child-like drawings" he had been sent before -- he might consent to a meeting.

"We need things in writing, not over some cup of coffee," he said. "Each time I respond with questions, all I get is a lot of puff."

He chuckled over the neighbors' comparison to the Cold War, saying that there was a difference: "The Soviet Union was a threat to us. These are my neighbors."

In a conciliatory tone, he added, "I want you to understand: This is not a conflict. It may well be a clash of civilizations, but it is not a conflict."

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