It all started with the question of the map.
When the town of Lovettsville, about 60 miles from Washington in northern Loudoun County, received a request for a minor zoning change two years ago, the local planning commission wanted a look at the zoning map.
The Lovettsville Town Council, led by Mayor J.R. Hummer, asked: "What map?"
The question has refused to die for the small, but no longer quiet, town of about 600 residents.
Startled by an investigation that revealed that Lovettsville apparently had no valid zoning map, the Town Council decided to rezone the town from scratch. That's when the trouble really began.
The heart of the controversy is an attempt by Hummer and others on the council, including Grace Hummer, the mayor's wife, to win commercial zoning status for their property, a prospect that in some instances would sharply increase the value of land.
In public meetings and in interviews, many town residents have charged the mayor and others on the council with manipulating town business for profit, trampling on public opinion and ignoring the safety of Lovettsville's children. (The Hummers' 10-acre tract lies across the street from the Lovettsville Elementary School.)
Hummer said he is making a fight for the town's future.
His critics, he said, don't understand what's at stake.
Just two miles south of the Potomac River and the Maryland border, lying at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lovettsville originally attracted German settlers, many of whom came for the jobs at the railroad in nearby Brunswick, Md. Locals often felt shunned and isolated from the rest of affluent Loudoun County, feelings that led to a strong town identity that remains today.
But recent years have brought change. Young families and town houses have arrived, and breadwinners usually catch a commuter train on the Maryland side to jobs in the District or drive to work in the suburbs.
Tensions from this transformation have helped fuel the zoning controversy.
Hummer, for example, has been an aggressive advocate of attracting business to Lovettsville to balance and help pay for the town's residential growth. But many commuters who moved to Lovettsville to escape urban sprawl oppose the mayor's quest.
Kingfish Everhart, who has lived in Lovettsville all his 72 years and has sparred vigorously with the mayor during the zoning debate, said: "It used to be that you'd go to town and people would want to sit around and talk. Now they come and go. Everyone is in a hurry."
The last time anyone remembers for certain that Lovettsville had a zoning map was at a town meeting in 1979, when an updated comprehensive plan for the town was approved. Minutes of that meeting show that no accompanying map was ever approved. A search of town records five years later found not one but several maps.
Over fierce objections from the chairman of the planning commission and others, the Lovettsville Town Council voted to begin the zoning of the town from scratch. People who wanted a change in their zoning status were to write the town.
Among the more than 20 letters were requests for commercial zoning status from J.R. and Grace Hummer and their neighbor, council member Elaine Walker.
Walker has declined to comment on why she is seeking commercial status for her property. Hummer said that he is trying only to ensure that he has proper zoning for an electrical business he already operates on his property.
He has no plans to develop or sell his land, Hummer said. Others are not convinced. Spurred by fears of someday seeing fast food restaurants, video stores and parking lots across the street from where their children go to school, several residents formed a group called Parents and Citizens Against Zoning.
"It's just logic. You don't have commercial zoning where you have a school with children coming and going," said Joseph D'Arcangelis, one of the group's members.
There have been protest pickets outside Town Council meetings and bitter confrontations between residents and town officials inside.
Some fear the controversy marks the end of the collegial, small-town style of government that has always prevailed in Lovettsville. Members of the town planning commission have resigned to protest the council's action. Others have dropped out from fear or fatigue, according to commission members.
Last year, the zoning question was frozen for several months while the Town Council scurried to find liability insurance in case the controversy ends in a lawsuit.
The town purchased insurance late last year and the way was cleared for a possible conclusion to the controversy this week when the Town Council holds its Thursday meeting. It is expected to vote on whether to approve a commercial zoning category for the Hummers' and Walker's properties.
As the dispute heads toward a climax, one person continues to dominate the political life of Lovettsville: the stocky, silver-haired man with the booming voice, Mayor J.R. Hummer.
Critics charge Hummer with undermining the public trust.
"I don't care how his property is zoned," said Everhart.
" But if he wants his property changed, why can't he do it the way . . . everyone else has to," he added. "He runs the town to his own suit. There is only one way to do things and that's Hummer's way."
But even Hummer's harshest critics in Lovettsville acknowledge that his controversial term has been highlighted by some major accomplishments, such as obtaining state money to improve the town's sewer system.
"The mayor and his wife have done some very good things. They feel unappreciated, but they're not," said Susan Jane Stack, an outspoken opponent of the zoning changes.
Hummer, who said that he doesn't expect to run for a second term this spring, hinted that the ultimate verdict about his term will be positive. "Lovettsville is a fantastic little town. It really is. It has an awful lot to offer, but it needs someone to stimulate these abilities."