In D.C., It's Big Names Vs. a Litigious Developer
Monday, October 30, 2006
On a rustic and exclusive lane in Northwest Washington dating from the Civil War, the Battle of Chain Bridge Road is raging.
A group of homeowners has been trying to stop the construction of 13 mansions on 3.5 acres, the largest piece of open land in the affluent Palisades neighborhood.
In most zoning disputes, residents might testify at public hearings. But in a neighborhood filled with boldfaced names, the fight is on a different level.
The neighbors -- including NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, her husband, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, and former Environmental Protection Agency deputy administrator Robert Sussman -- have hired a zoning attorney, an arborist, a traffic expert and a storm water management engineer. To date, they've spent nearly $100,000.
Then again, they're facing Morton A. Bender.
"We tried to do this the old-fashioned way," Mitchell said. "But we're up against a developer with the deepest of pockets and no sense of community obligation. Sure, people here have resources. But believe me, there's a lot better ways I'd prefer to spend my money."
Bender, a 73-year-old native Washingtonian who made a fortune in the family construction business, is one of the most determined men in town, both admirers and detractors say. This is not a man who likes to negotiate. He enjoys a good fight.
The local and federal courts hold stacks of cases in which he is sometimes the defendant but more often the plaintiff. He says he can't keep track of all the people and institutions he's currently suing and doesn't know how many lawyers he's hired. "I saw the mayor at an event, and he said, 'How many cases do you have against the District?' and I said 'a few,' " Bender said.
His affection for his fellow combatants is so great that when he threw a birthday party years ago, he invited only his lawyers. About 30 came to the restaurant, where Bender hung a "Bender's Barristers Club" sign and handed out diplomas from "Bender Law School."
"He thoroughly enjoys a good controversy and draws strength from it," said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the president of George Washington University, where Bender is a generous donor. "He's a very nuanced and complicated man. It's not as if those descriptions of him as a tough guy are wrong. He is a man with many sides to him. If attacked, he fights back with everything. If he thinks you are wrong, he's not a man who understands the meaning of the word 'compromise.' But at the same time, he is very funny and charitable."
Bender, who lost a son to AIDS in 1995, donates heavily to programs that fight the disease. "He's personally given away hundreds of thousands of dollars to a whole panoply of programs from pediatric AIDS to the transgendered community," said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the committee on health care. "To be sure, he is a very complicated character. I've never met someone with such a capacity of determination. I would never want to be on the other side of Morty Bender."
When he split from his first wife in 1977, Bender not only sued her for divorce based on adultery, he filed suit against her lover for "criminal conversation," an ancient legal theory that holds a husband has exclusive rights to his wife's affection and can sue anyone who interferes. Bender won.