Leaders of the Citizens Association of Georgetown like to portray their organization as just another community group in Washington, winning a fight here, losing a battle there, in a never-ending struggle with government bureaucrats and real estate developers.
In fact, the 800-member association for this historic and prestigious quarter of the city is no ordinary one.
Its membership includes influential lawyers, bankers and architects. It spends thousands of dollars on a single zoning case. It has friends on Capitol Hill to help shepherd pet legislation through Congress. It is sometimes represented, free of charge, by attorneys from Arnold & Porter, one of the city's most esteemed law firms.
Yet, all is not perfect. There are splits within the association on land use and social priorities. And some say its vigilance has waned with the loss of volunteer workers, mostly women who traditionally stayed at home but now are employed in the workaday world.
The association's ups and downs are most vividly seen in its recent battle to stop commercial development of the Georgetown waterfront, a battle that has pitted the association's leadership against not only the city government but one of its own members -- developer Herbert Miller.
Miller wants to build a $154-million commercial and residential complex along a portion of the Potomac River waterfront. The association wants a park instead. Miller says he has spent $3.5 million in legal fees and other costs in the battle, while the association has had two Arnold & Porter attorneys, David Bonderman and Douglas Dworkin, represent it against Miller at no cost.
The city's historic preservation officer, Carol B. Thompson, recently approved construction of Miller's project, dealing the association a crucial though not necessarily final blow. The city also agreed to lease two acres of parking lot space on the waterfront for a proposed floating restaurant.
Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), who lives in Georgetown, has helped the association by introducing bills to facilitate a land swap between the federal government and developers. Under the measure, the developers would give up six acres along the waterfront for a park in exchange for government land elsewhere. But so far the legislation is languishing in Congress.
Earlier, the association spent nearly $100,000 in another unsuccessful fight against the city government's 1974 rezoning of the blocks south of M Street to the Potomac.
To keep out unwanted intrusions, which can range from an extra story on a garage to a large office building, association watchdogs for the last 30 years have religiously attended the meetings of the D.C. Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
They also closely watch the Old Georgetown Board, a panel of three architects that reviews the design of proposed Georgetown buildings, and the Fine Arts Commission, another federal advisory agency that considers the merits of building plans in the historic sector of Georgetown. In addition, the association monitors the city Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in an effort to limit licenses for bars and restaurants in Georgetown's congested commercial strips along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
Association president Donald H. Shannon, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, and a man known for his energy and sharp tongue, embodies the association's no-nonsense approach, especially on the waterfront issue.
He says of city planning director James O. Gibson, whose office supports commercial development, "He has a major in English and a minor in motor mouthing." Shannon describes Gibson's Office of Planning and Development as "a shameful disgrace . . . . They're a bunch of clowns there."
Gibson declined comment on Shannon's characterizations.
Miller and his Western Development Co. are "those idiots" and their proposed development is "a monster," Shannon says. "It is a desecration of the city's major asset" to have "some ugly damned thing like this on the river."
With the association's zoning and court defeats, its biggest weapon against waterfront development is delay. "We don't win very many, but we've delayed a good deal," said Thomas Parrott, a former association vice president, who has lived in Georgetown since 1949.
"Since the passage of the Old Georgetown Act of 1950 making the area a historic district and national landmark , our successes have not been impressive," Parrott said. "We have succeeded at vast expense and time holding down the massiveness of the development. It would have been worse than it is, and it is pretty bad."
The association takes credit for preserving the old foundry building south of M Street that was converted into a shopping mall, gaining concessions from some developers and exerting some influence on the final zoning plan, according to Edward Miller, a former chairman of the association's waterfront committee.
The association has also waged a continuous battle against liquor licenses. The group's leaders argue that the current glut of Georgetown bars and restaurants causes massive traffic jams and attracts some customers who break car windows, deface property and yell obscenities along residential streets.
Attorney Courts Oulahan, a Georgetown resident for 60 years, has represented the association in liquor cases since 1965. But the association's record is not good. The community has challenged 75 licenses in 16 years and won 15 percent of them, said Oulahan, who works for free or for only modest fees.
Even opponents of the association praise it for trying to preserve the neighborhood's reputed village atmosphere.
"They have a legitimate purpose and a legitimate right to keep Georgetown protected . . . . It is a precious area, one that needs to be preserved," said developer Miller,who has been fighting the association for five years on the waterfront issue.
But he added, "They do not achieve their aims because they are viewed as being myopic." He called the leaders in the waterfront fight -- Shannon, association vice president Ann Satterthwaite and association waterfront committee chairman Katharine Sullivan -- "the reactionaries."
Miller said he compromised on the waterfront by proposing a development that is smaller than what the zoning allows.
Shannon and others said compromise had been tried in the past and proved unworkable.
Other residents also criticized what they called the rigidity of the association, saying it does not reflect all community attitudes. Some complained that issues such as crime receive little attention.
"I feel very strongly that crime is by far the issue of most concern," said Sara Blunt, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Georgetown. "Now is the time to take more interest in crime."
Shannon says the association has initiated anti-crime programs, such as the Citizens Watch, which encourages residents to notice suspicious activities and report them to police, but he added, "I think the waterfront has to take all of our attention now because if the waterfront is developed it will destroy residential Georgetown above M Street."