Two months ago the little park at the center of Friendship Heights was dedicated to the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. Soon a plaque there, near the cloverleaf fountain and the magnolia trees, will bear his words: "The greatest gift of life is the gift of friendship."
But there is more than a touch of irony in the prominent display of these sentiments smack in the middle of this mini-Manhattan just inside Montgomery County along Wisconsin Avenue. For years, residents of this tiny area have been embroiled in lawsuits that have pitted neighbor against neighbor, and the newer residents against the old.
When Alfred Muller, now chairman of the Friendship Heights village council, moved into his high-rise apartment on the park five years ago, he had to thread his way through pickets calling for the ouster of the then-village government. "That was my introduction to friendly Friednship Heights," he murmured ruefully.
Soon afterward the old council was ousted by a new neighborhood continent of councilmembers. The new council soon sued the old, then the old countersued the new. Ever since, there has been a flood of actual or threatened litigation between the two regimes over everything from sewer sizes to sidewalks. The latest fight is over village residents taxes.
During one of these continuing controversies, a Montgomery County judge was overheard to say that anyone who volunteered for office in Friendship Heights ought to have liability insurance.
"Thirty-two acres here, and on every one a story," said John Jasper, 24, the new village manager, who found himself in a windowless, institutional green rented office on the fringes of the community rather than in a central town hall because of one of the disputes.
That such a small pie-shaped section of Montgomery County could engender such fever is hardly surprising, however, considering what is at stake.
In the early 1960s, Friendship Heights was one of the many neighborhoods of single-family homes that dotted the Wisconsin Avenue corridor. Both sides of this Avenue in Friendship Heights were being transformed into blue-ribbon commercial area, with the development of the Chevy Chase Shopping Center just south of the village and the opening of Woodward & Lothrop store nearby.
In 1964, Friendship Heights was rezoned for commercial development and within two years nearly all the 108 homes were sold and the residents moved out many making sizable profits along the way.
Most of the suburban homes were razed for the coming steel and stone high-rises, the massive apartment and office buildings that now occupy most of Friendship Heights.
Affluent professionals, diplomats and retirees who could afford monthly rents ranging from $285 to $1,000 moved in to the new vertical village, where almost all the buildings are two blocks or less from a bus line, a planned Metro stop and one of the plushest shopping districts in the metropolitan area.
Friendship Heights "is THE location in Montgomery County," said Tim Edwards, whose suburban home was bulldozed to make way for the new high-rises of this "gateway" community outside the District.
Edwards herself is now a real estate agent who pushes the area's future development potential with messianic fervor. Her determined efforts to fulfil her vision of Friendship Heights have given her a wide reputation. She is either the neighborhood benefactress or "Dame Terrible," depending on who is talking.
"Rather than let Wisconsin Avenue fragment all the way up with the ugly (strip development) - including White Flint - 1 said let's turn this gateway to the finest land in the county into something. There's nothing more beautiful than a tall building rising into the sky," said Edwards, tossing her arms so that the large diamond on one hand jiggled slightly.
Then in 1973, when the first phase of Friendship Heights was finished and the Irene, Highland House and Wiloughby apartment buildings were in place, the Montgomery County Planning Board dramatically changed the permitted zoning for the rest of the land, short-circuiting another $350 million developmental sweep of the area that was about to get under way. The board's decision to "downzone" reduced tha land's development potential by about 80 percent, to curb the strain of growth on public facilities such as streets and sewers.
"They aborted what could have happened here," said Edwards in a recent interview.
The board's decision set into motion a string of lawsuits and generated new activism from the people who were moving in - among them professionals who were experts in sewers, air and noise pollution and land use.
The interests of the newcomers - centered around "quality of life" and "urban community" - were pitted against those of the property owners. Chief among this latter group were Edwards and Milton and Allen Barlow, all of whom wanted to complete their high-priced plans for the village.
Today, four small chunks of vacant or sparsely developmed land lie at the center of the current community rifts.
"We're not opposed to development and the people who live here like high-rise living," said Cleonice Tavani, a social worker with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and head of the citizens' association. "But we don't want wall-to-wall concrete without some trees or parks here and there."
Although the restrictive zoning imposed by the planners has been fought and upheld all the way to the Supreme Court, it is only one of the disputes. On the heels of the development controversy came the tax fight.
Until 1973, the property owners held exclusive control over the seven member village council, which sets the local tax rate in the special taxing district of Friendship Heights. Only property owners were allowed to vote. But the new tenants challenged these rules, won voting privileges and in the 1973 election ousted the property owners.
Now, as elected leaders of the village, members of the newcomers' contingent have set the tax rate at 35 cents per $100 of assessed value, in order to pay old debts and to finance such projects as a new community center. Property owners like Edwards and 300 of the owners' supporters in the village are saying that the new tax rate is unnecessarily high. Yet another lawsuit has been threatened.
"In five years it has been one harassment after another," complained council chairman Muller, a local physician who is now running for Congress.
"...We have been threatened with suits for building sidewalks. We don't have a place to vote, no place to meet and no town hall because Mrs Edwards have convinced property owners not to give us space. Just the other day she said she would sue if we didn't lower the taxes."
"I worked in a town 10 times this size," Jasper, the new village manager, said recently with a disbelieving grin. "They had nothing close to these problems."