Where We Live

Where We Live: Glen Echo Heights in Maryland's Montgomery County

By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 29, 2010

The streets in Glen Echo Heights twist and turn almost as much as their Native American names: Tuscarawas, Walhonding, Wapakoneta. The names reflect the language of the Algonquian tribe that once lived along the Potomac River and hunted in the "heights" above what is today MacArthur Boulevard.

And while the Algonquians lived in bark huts, the eclectic collection of 480 homes in the community now range from a just-completed $10 million contemporary with Potomac River views to more modest Cape Cods and ramblers. Hundred-foot-tall tulip poplars and oaks provide a leafy canopy over much of the neighborhood.

Matt Gillen moved from the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the District to a mid-century modern house in Glen Echo Heights in 2003.

"We didn't know about the community, but we were just delighted because of the trees and that we could walk down to the river. Our back yard is all trees, like you're in the woods," he said.

Suzanne Harvey also moved to Glen Echo Heights because of the trees. She was tired of blaring sirens and the lack of green space around her Capitol Hill home. Her small gray house in Glen Echo Heights is one of the original cottages built on her block in the 1930s.

"I wanted a bit of garden and green" she said. "It's quite safe here and a little funky."

But despite Glen Echo Heights' still-verdant feel, Harvey and other residents worry that too many trees are being lost as developers have torn down dozens of small, old houses and built far larger ones in their place, most selling for well over $1 million.

"The simplest, most expedient thing to do is tear all the trees down when they build," said Harry Pfohl, president of the Glen Echo Heights Citizens' Association. "You feel bad because you lose tree cover," he said, pointing out the break in tree canopy next to his house where three new homes were recently built.

So the association drew up tree-protection guidelines it asks builders in the neighborhood to consider, including creating "tree preservation zones" that will be fenced off during construction. The association provides signs to builders that agree to the guidelines that read, "This builder's project meets our neighborhood best practices for preserving trees."

"If they're going to build, we want to be a moral force, be an advocate for the builder to preserve as many trees as possible," said Gillen, chairman of the association's tree and garden committee.

The association is also working with Montgomery County on environmentally sensitive storm-water management plans for three streets as part of a project in which all the roads in the community are being repaved this spring and summer. Most of Glen Echo Heights' narrow streets do not have curbs or storm drains, and the association would like to keep it that way.

The three demonstration streets will incorporate rain gardens planted with water-loving wetland plants to help absorb rain runoff from streets and driveways that might otherwise go directly into streams. The gardens can help filter pollutants from the storm water and help prevent flooding during heavy rains.

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