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."
But trail advocates charge elitism and say Madeira supporters have blown safety concerns out of proportion in the interest of keeping the public out. They note that trails crisscross the county in all manner of locations -- next to schools, behind back yards, through parks and woods -- and there is no documented correlation with crime. Connolly, the board chairman, sought crime statistics from the police department to prove that point, but the department does not record crime locations according to trails.
Still, Connolly said: "The tragic incident that occurred 30 years ago -- all of us need to be mindful of that, and none of us wants to see a recurrence of that. But there wasn't a trail 30 years ago. I've got a trail going behind my house. Twenty-one schools are proximate to trail systems. And, no, rape and pillage do not occur with any regularity there."
Regarding environmental concerns, Connolly was dismissive, noting that Madeira refused two offers to purchase conservation easements for portions of their property. "You can't have it both ways," he said. "You can't suddenly use that as a defense when your whole record is to say no, not to one but to two different entities."
The proposed trail, of which Madeira's property would provide just a piece, would connect Scott's Run to the east to Great Falls Park to the west. Madeira owns as much as a mile of steep and isolated property along the Potomac River; its arts building and several faculty houses offer dramatic, panoramic views of the river from high bluffs above.
In addition to security, Madeira supporters say the trail would be prohibitively dangerous and expensive to build along such a treacherous path. They also say it would harm a number of delicate plant species that grow along the river. They say hikers would litter and view the entire Madeira property as their own private park. And they say that with little policing and access, injured hikers would have difficulty reaching safety.
Ultimately, Madeira supporters say they don't think it's fair for the county to force a private property owner to give up the use of land for something other than an urgent public need. They note that Madeira has donated an easement to Fairfax for a trail along the property's border with Georgetown Pike. That trail has not been built, and Griffith and others wondered why that path couldn't serve the same purpose of connecting other county trails without jeopardizing student safety. School officials agreed to donate that easement the last time they came before the county for permission to expand.
Fairfax Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), whose district includes the Madeira School, disagrees with the school's perspective, but he hopes an agreement can be reached. The school has applied to replace and expand its aging wastewater treatment plant and make several other improvements on campus that require county approval. Foust expects school officials to scale back their application or begin discussing how the county might secure the trail in a way that might be acceptable to Madeira.
"We've offered on numerous occasions to work with them and at least explore what it would take to address the security issues if we were able to put a trail along the river," Foust said. "Maybe we could never satisfy their concerns."