By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
In July, Bender gave his second wife, Grace, a 60th birthday party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The couple transformed the space into Hotel Nacional, a Havana landmark where Grace Bender grew up as the daughter of the hotel manager. They flew in cigar rollers from Miami for the 350 guests, hired two Latin bands and commissioned a cake reproduction of the Nacional from a celebrity baker in Manhattan. Morton Bender balked at the hotel's charge for 20 pounds of caviar and insisted on bringing in his own, less expensive caviar. The catering director objected. Bender won.
Bender is currently suing Independence Federal Savings Bank, the District bank where he is the largest shareholder. He tried to take control of the bank last fall, but shareholders rejected his candidates for the board of directors. So Bender filed suit, alleging that the election was tainted by improprieties. In the preliminary stage, Bender won.
When Bender realized that the law firm representing him before the zoning board on the Chain Bridge Road project was also representing Independence in its fight against him, he pointed out the conflict, he said. The firm stopped representing him. The lawyer involved, Holland and Knight partner Norman "Chip" Glasgow Jr., declined to comment.
"I'm fit to be tied," Bender said. "I'm going to sue them."
For years, Bender has wrangled with the District over the tax rate for six vacant historic buildings on N Street NW near the Tabard Inn. He bought them 18 years ago for $8 million cash and has tried to win approval to turn them into a hotel.
He has also fought the city over its assessment of his home, the former Korean Embassy in Massachusetts Avenue Heights. The city assessed the eight-bedroom, nine-bath house resembling a French chateau at $3.2 million in 2002; Bender argued it was worth $2.2 million, and the taxes should have been lower. He lost that one.
"I stand up to be counted," Bender is fond of saying. "No one stands up for rights anymore."
The Battle of Chain Bridge Road comes to a head tomorrow, when the Board of Zoning Adjustment holds the fifth and final hearing on the matter. It began in 2002, when Bender paid $6 million for two pieces of land on the road.
One tract was anchored by a modest house, which Bender demolished. The smaller lot held the vacant Chain Bridge Road School, used by the children of freed slaves who lived along the road after the Civil War. The original one-room 1865 schoolhouse was replaced by a two-floor stucco structure in 1923, which closed as a school in 1941 but remained on the property.
Right after Bender bought the lots, the neighbors got the school named a historic landmark, ensuring he couldn't knock it down and limiting the development potential.
"They started the war," Bender said.
Early discussions between Bender and the neighbors about his plans went nowhere. He ended up suing one neighbor over a retaining wall that encroached 15 inches onto his new property. He won in D.C. Superior Court but not before the judge questioned why Bender brought the case.
"It seems to be the height of folly, laced with a bit of vindictiveness the source of which is unknown to the court, for plaintiff to insist that this attractive and necessary wall be removed simply so that it can be reconstructed about two feet further down the hill," Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin wrote.
Under current zoning laws, Bender can build nine houses on Chain Bridge Road, said Maxine Brown Roberts of the D.C. Planning Office. Asked why he wants to build 13, Bender sketched on a piece of paper how he can maximize profits from 13 houses. His plans meet the minimum lot requirements under the zoning rules, he said.
If the neighbors wanted lower density, they should have petitioned the city to increase the lot requirements, he said. The houses, one of which would be nearly 10,000 square feet, would sell between $3 million and $5 million each, he said.
Across the street is Battery Kemble Park, a former Union Army fort, where dog walkers chat about Bender's plans. "People are just furious that someone would come who doesn't care about the neighborhood and would put 13 mansions on 3.5 acres," said Hattie Babbitt, wife of former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who walks their German shorthaired pointer in the park.
Like many residential streets in the District and close-in suburbs, Chain Bridge Road has been under development pressure. Aging homeowners have sold, and newcomers are replacing modest houses with towering homes.
"Suddenly, a three-story house goes up next to you -- the light gets cut off half the day, and the vegetable garden you had last year won't grow because there's no sun," said Alma Gates, the advisory neighborhood commissioner, who has lived in there since 1969.
To slow the trend, the neighborhood persuaded the city in 1999 to enact zoning rules that protect mature trees and limit development there.
"We've reached our limit," said Mitchell, adding that neighbors would have backed Bender had he planned six to eight houses. "But to talk about 13 houses is completely disrespectful of the land."
If Bender wins, she says she will sell. "I can't imagine staying in the neighborhood if those houses come in," said Mitchell, who has lived in an 1894 farmhouse for 30 years.
City agencies that reviewed Bender's plan have issued conflicting opinions. The Planning Office recommended approval if Bender dropped one house and lowered the height of another, among other conditions. But the city's Urban Forestry Administration said the zoning board should reject the plan because it violates the special zoning protection for mature trees.
Bender has at least one ally on the street. "Every time someone wants to build a house in this neighborhood, the neighbors get all excited," said Bernard Gewirz, an acquaintance of Bender's. "It's 'I've got mine, and keep the other people out.' "
If they lose before the zoning board, the neighbors say they will probably take Bender to court. And if Bender loses, he might do the same.
"I can put a farm over there," he said. "I was thinking of pigs and peacocks. Peacocks make a hell of a racket."