By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007
It started as little more than neighborhood rumor: The old Grosvenor Estate was up for sale. But in Bethesda's development-wary neighborhoods, a juicy real-estate rumor can hit like a molotov cocktail.
Within days of hearing last month that a buyer was sniffing around the Tudor mansion and 35-acre property on Grosvenor Lane, once the estate of National Geographic patriarch Gilbert H. Grosvenor and currently the home of a small complex of nonprofit groups, the neighbors were at battle stations. Having successfully squared off against several projects in recent years, the Wildwood Manor Citizens Association knew just how to respond when rumors began to spread that the estate was going to be sold for use as a private school or possibly an Islamic prayer center, or maybe both.
Mass e-mails were sent, testimony was prepared and the usual lawyers and traffic and environmental experts were put on standby.
"Wildwood has been extremely successful in protecting its borders," said Ann Bryan, a former development chairman of the association. "They know the troops have been rallied over here."
If these are the opening moves of a classic Montgomery County development duel, they are starting a little prematurely, according to the owners of the property. The Natural Renewable Resources Foundation, which bought the site in 1973, said there is not even a sales contract on the place. But the foundation eventually responded to the growing neighborhood buzz, acknowledging that a private school is looking at the site and a deal could be announced in coming weeks.
Robert Day, the foundation president, said he was obligated to not reveal the buyer's identity, but he did seek to quell widespread rumors that the project would also include a mosque associated with the United Arab Emirates. "The planned use for the property is entirely non-sectarian and non-religious in nature," he said in a letter to the president of the citizens association.
Day lamented the speculation that was flowing around the neighborhood. "I really wish we were allowed to say more," he said. "I haven't heard a single piece of information circulating that is accurate."
No matter what kind of school is planned, neighborhood leaders said they would resist any proposal that would leave the area with more traffic and fewer trees. The Grosvenor Estate is one of the last largely undeveloped patches of forest in the densely packed area at Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway. The property is on Grosvenor Lane, a narrow street that runs between Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road.
In recent years, Wildwood Manor residents have used traffic-impact arguments to win concessions from several proposed development projects, including a medical office building that will be smaller and more buffered than proposed. A high-rise retirement home that was blocked.
"We've had so much development that we're used to this," said Cheryl Leahy, president of the citizens association. "We're getting it from all sides."
According to documents at the Montgomery County Historical Society, the 14-bedroom house was built by the Grosvenor family in 1928 and features doors and windows taken from the Washington mansion of Alexander Graham Bell, Grosvenor's father-in-law. The property was purchased by the foundation from Grosvenor's heirs 17 years ago for $1.23 million for use as office space for environmental groups. The Society of American Foresters is housed there. Several other groups, including the Wildlife Society and the American Fisheries Society, work out of two buildings constructed by the foundation.
The property is also a candidate for the county's Legacy Open Space registry, a program that adds a layer of protection to environmentally significant land. Open Space status would not necessarily preclude a school from being built, according to Brenda Sandberg, manger of the program, but it would give the county more say in changes that might affect forestland on the property.
Sandberg said her agency included the estate on its review list several months ago. "It just seemed like a site ripe for redevelopment," she said.
The site is one of seven properties nominated for the registry that the county Planning Board is expected to rule on in coming weeks.
Not all residents said they would object to a private school on the site. "Depending on how much land they'd need to use, maybe," said Cathy McKaig, who was exercising one morning last week in Fleming Park, adjacent to the Grosvenor property. "My neighborhood is opposed to it, though. We got a mass e-mail about it last night."
Bryan, too, said a smaller school might be acceptable -- one with limited traffic and playing fields that didn't consume too many trees. But she also noted that private schools are embroiled in controversies with neighbors across the region.
"We don't know what they have planned," Bryan said. "What we do know is that private schools get neighborhoods up in arms about traffic. They tend to start out small but then grow and grow and grow."
The mystery school that is considering the property has already hired a public relations consultant to help ease neighborhood concerns. Jeanne Allen Strother, of the Washington-based Allen Company, said she expects residents to be pleasantly surprised when her clients' identity and their plans are unveiled.
"This neighborhood should rest assured that this is not your typical we're-going-to-come-in-and-change-everything kind of transaction," she said. "My clients will embrace the natural landscape and integrity of the neighborhood."
But the veteran development fighters in the area say that proposed projects always look harmless in the planning stages.
"Every development plan is a thing of beauty," said Norm Knopf, a lawyer who represented Wildwood in several previous battles. "You can hardly see the buildings for all the trees in the drawing. But they are worthless as a predictor of the ultimate reality."