Even in Montgomery County, which boasts a history of citizen participation in even the most mundane decision-making, the rulers and residents of Friendship Heights have earned a reputation for carrying the principles of democratic self-government to the extreme.
Undeterred by the size of their small community of high-rise condominiums on Washington's western border, and waving their limited self-rule charter like a flag, the elected members of the Friendship Heights Village Council have done battle against a wide assortment of goliaths -- the County Council, the planning board, the courts, and especially developers.
When the council hasn't liked county-backed development plans for the commercial corridor along Wisconsin Avenue, it has gone to court to block or delay them. When it was unhappy with police protection, it hired a private security force to patrol the village borders. And when a county board or committee holds a meeting on something of local concern, it's a safe assumption that the turnout will be large and vociferous.
Now, in the latest assertion of its own authority, the council has taken up the touchy issue of gun control, passing a tough new ban on handguns within the village's 32-acre boundaries and presenting the County Council, which must approve all village ordinances, with a polit-ically divisive issue 12 months before elections.
For the 7,000 residents of Friendship Heights, who cherish their autonomy with a passion, the gun-control ordinance -- like the zoning battles and the private police force -- is simply a case of local village residents looking out for their own interests after a series of of handgun-related crimes.
"It's a highly educated population," said Village Council member Charlotte Kenton. "There's a lot of citizen participation. Some of the county government bodies think there's too much citizen participation. I think it's great. That's my idea of democracy."
Even the council members concede that the the village handgun bill is of questionable legality. First, the village law could be preempted by a state law saying only the state can regulate handguns. And the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide the legality of a similar handgun-control ordinance passed in Morton's Grove, a Chicago suburb. That decision is expected to set a precedent for whether localities can regulate guns within their borders.
But to some critics, the gun-control law is only the latest example of what what they see as the inevitable result of allowing too many small jurisdictions to govern themselves. In their view, Friendship Heights is a case of democracy run amok.
"It's democratic," said R. Robert Linowes, the county's preeminent zoning lawyer, "but anarchy and chaos can also be termed democratic, and I think those terms might better describe what's going on in Friendship Heights."
"There's nothing wrong with citizen participation -- more often than not, the people come up with some dammed good suggestions," Linowes said. "But this gets out of hand."
The Village Council's undaunted activism has already landed its members in court. A group of angry village residents -- including one former Village Council member who quit in disgust -- are charging that the council has no legal right to spend thousands of dollars in public money to fight zoning battles or commission costly development studies.
Friendship Heights derives its special status because of its designation from the state government as one a "special taxing districts." That designation essentially allows the pie-shaped wedge bordered by Wisconsin Avenue, Willard Avenue and River Road south of Somerset to use its local income tax revenues to collect the garbage, maintain the streets and watch after the general public safety.
Over the years, the seven-member Village Council has used the "public safety" power as its sweeping mandate to challenge business development in Friendship Heights, site of a future Metro subway stop and a choice spot for business. It was that same "public safety" power that the Village Council used as justification for passing its new gun-control law last week.
"We felt we really ought to take the initiative because of the number of incidents reported by our security force, and also in anticipation that once the Metro opens, we'll have an increase in people coming into the area," said council member Jessie S. Gertman. The handgun bill calls for a $50-to-$500 fine for first offenders caught with guns, and a fine plus up to six months in jail for second offenders. Village residents would have 90 days to turn in their arms.
Elected officials in Friendship Heights used to be heavily pro-developer, in the days before 1972 when only property owners could vote in village elections. The landowners, with the developers, essentially ran village affairs.
Then in April 1972, tenants got the right to vote in the village, and in the election one year later changed the shape of politics in Friendship Heights. The old council was tossed out and replaced by a liberal, no-growth council and that faction has been more or less in control ever since.
"There's a vested interest on the part of the residents not to see this area go commercial," said Robert K. Kinsey, a Village Council member and resident since 1967. "You still see some vacant lots here. It is not fully developed."
The Village Council has no legal zoning power and no say in water or sewer allocations, but the villagers have come up with their own way of shaping development inside their borders -- they simply take developers to court. The villagers have been able to delay development for years by filing endless zoning appeals and cross-appeals, thus giving the Village Council a de facto stamp over all development projects in its borders.
"They are organized," said John Hoover, spokesman for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "Any development that comes up, they monitor it and deal with it and they are frequently the people who back any legal action against it."
"They have no zoning authority," said Hoover. "They appear in court cases as people who are interested and pushing their point of view." Hoover added, "They have been more consistently active and effective than most other groups. The community represents a considerable amount of economic power. They can afford to hire the best lawyers. They are in a position better than most groups to balance out the economic power of the developers."
The latest development project to come under attack from the village is Woodward and Lothrop's planned hotel and office complex on nearby Western Avenue. Linowes, whose firm is representing the developers in that case, called the village's challenges "unreal."
"We proposed a building for Chevy Chase Land Co., all in accordance with zoning regulations," Linowes said. "I think 14 lawsuits have been filed against it."
To many in Friendship Heights, however, the complaints sound suspiciously like complaints about democracy in general.
"From the standpoint of a politician, it's always better to have things pretty settled," Kinsey said. "In most states, the politicians work hand-in-glove with the real estate developers and the judges. Here, you've got an outfit the Village Council that comes along and bucks the trend. How much easier it would be for the politicians here if everybody just sat back and stayed passive, and let them and the realtors run the show."