Elite Setting's Property Debate

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Madeira School's horse arena, dormitories and sweeping views of the Potomac River are not visible from its entrance along a winding, heavily wooded stretch of Georgetown Pike in McLean.

But this private boarding school for girls finds itself at the center of a public debate about safety, environmentalism and what it means to be a good neighbor.

On one side are county officials pushing to complete a 100-mile loop of hiking trails that would include a one-mile swath of the Madeira School's riverfront property. On the other side are parents, board members and administrators of Madeira, who say that allowing such a trail would jeopardize the safety of their students and a 370-acre preserve of woods and wildlife.

The conflict has elicited cries of elitism and fear-mongering on Madeira's part and political ruthlessness on the county's. It has emerged as one of Fairfax County's more controversial land-use decisions of the year, with lawyers, neighbors, trail advocates and environmentalists weighing in. Through it all, neither side has budged.

"There's an opportunity for the school to step forward and make a historic contribution to the completion of one of the most important trails in the region," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "We are trying to create a 100-mile trail loop in Fairfax County. This will be something generations will appreciate and be able to enjoy."

Countered Elisabeth Griffith, headmistress at Madeira: "There seems to be a conflict of values over what people are asking for. A trail along the river, in a heavily wooded area -- that's alarming to me. We have a responsibility to put safety first."

At issue is Madeira's request for county permission to expand the campus. County leaders, led by Connolly, have said they will gladly give permission if Madeira grants an easement for the trail. Madeira, led by Griffith, has flatly said no. The conflict has divided the community, with Madeira parents, students and neighbors defending the school's safety concerns, and trail advocates and county leaders saying those concerns are overstated.

As a former Madeira mother and a Great Falls neighbor, Robin Rentsch straddles the two sides, but she says she firmly believes that the trail should be built. Environmental concerns can be addressed by laying the trail away from the riverbank's unique bedrock terrace, Rentsch said, and the security concerns have been exaggerated.

"I feel like the school needs to be part of the community," she told the county Planning Commission at a public hearing this year. "I don't think it should build a wall around itself and be exclusive."

The Madeira School sits 12 miles outside of Washington and educates the daughters of Washington's and the nation's elite. Its graduates include Katharine Graham, a late publisher of The Washington Post. It has 320 students in grades 9 through 12, about half of whom live on campus. Tuition for boarders is more than $43,000 a year. Day students pay $33,000.

Griffith and her supporters are haunted, in part, by the memory of 1973, when an intruder swam across Difficult Run and assaulted a Madeira student, tied her to a tree and left her to die. The slaying still horrifies those close to Madeira, who say building a trail along the school's secluded riverfront would make it impossible to secure the campus.

"The very openness of Madeira and the fact that the whole northern side is heavily wooded -- people will wander through that entire area," said Henry Harris, a McLean geologist with one daughter who is a senior at Madeira and another who has graduated. "They will be able to get into the campus. There are dorm buildings that come right into the wooded areas. I think it's unfair for the county to be asking them to do this."

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