A number of people in Beverly Manor, a residential neighborhood in McLean, think the McLean Project for the Arts is just dandy -- as long as it's not in their neighborhood.
For the last 20-odd years, the McLean Project for the Arts has been showing work by local artists, running art classes for children, and generally promoting the sort of activities that appeal to culture-conscious McLean. But the arts group, tired of moving from rented basement to rented basement, has decided to settle down -- in Beverly Manor.
An attempt to purchase a vacant lot across from the McLean Community Center and construct a home for the art center failed last year, but now a house next door to the community center is on the market.
The McLean Project for the Arts has a contract to buy the house at 1228 Ingleside Ave. But in zoning parlance, an arts group is a far cry from a community center, a library or a group home for the mentally retarded, all of which are in the roughly 100-family neighborhood. So the arts group had to apply for a special zoning exception.
And that's the problem.
"One wants to accommodate them," said Denzil Jenkins, president of the Beverly Manor Civic Association. "The concern is that the special exception is a wedge in the door -- once there's one, there'll be another and another, and the central business district will jump across Dolley Madison Boulevard .
"Some might think it would be nice to have the MPA there. The concern is the special exception . . . Our backs are up against the wall with the pressures that have been applied."
The president of the McLean Project for the Arts, Nancy Weyl, isn't too happy, either. "They don't understand the proceedings of the county," she said of the Beverly Manor residents. "The number of educational groups that could do this is very slight. It's a nonissue."
"I can't recall any other circumstance where everybody's trying to choose up sides before the staffing on the special exception request has been done," said Supervisor Nancy K. Falck (D-Dranesville). "I went to the meeting to say that I was going to wait to form an opinion until I heard the zoning board staff reaction, and encourage everyone to calm down.
"They Beverly Manor residents are adamant because they're feeling crowded," Falck said. "If they have to say right this minute, some residents are going to say no."
The attorney who is representing the arts group, Grayson Hanes of Hazel, Beckhorn and Hanes, said the "wedge in the door" argument is just a misunderstanding. "The special exception process allows you to condition your use to meet any objections, like hours of operation or parking. It doesn't set any type of precedent at all, because any other use of this type would have to go through the same process," he said.
"I'm an attorney and I argue that that's not an argument," said Cheryl Bell, who bought a house near the house in question six months ago.
"It's far more desirable and quieter than a household with two or three bedrooms full of teen-agers," said Lilla Richards, president of the McLean Citizens Foundation, which has given the arts group a $25,000 challenge grant.
Anthony Vaivada, who sold the house he had lived in for 30 years to Bell and is building another house behind hers, said the special exception "would be setting a precedent for organizations that call themselves nonprofit who demand similar treatment . . . we do love the area and have confidence that it will retain its character."
"I would not want to test the zoning exception in my neighborhood," said Chris Sizemore, who lives next door to Bell and directly across the street from where the MPA wants to be. "I'm concerned it will be like a cancer -- once it sets in, it will force us on this side of Dolley Madison Boulevard to go commercial. It has nothing to do with the Project for the Arts. I think they're terrific. I commend what they do." Although Sizemore says "by far the majority" of Beverly Manor residents is against having the arts group move in, it's hard to get a show of hands. Not that it hasn't been tried.
Last week, the Beverly Manor Civic Association met in the library to talk about the problem at the meeting where Falck spoke. The problem turned out to be the meeting itself. A lot of the people who turned up don't live in the neighborhood. Some of them live in Great Falls.
Jenkins diplomatically attributed the appearance of nonresidents to "a slight breakdown in communication."
"Ringers were brought in from another civic association," said Bell. "We didn't invite them, though I won't say who did. It was quite an unpleasant experience. It's unfortunate that we've had to muster an effort to battle the group."
The residents didn't get to vote on the matter at hand because the meeting dissolved into a dispute over the boundaries of Beverly Manor.
"It was an attempt to turn neighbor against neighbor," said Bell, "and I'm glad to say it didn't work."
But the war isn't won, yet. "The MPA has hired the premier zoning attorney to represent them," said Bell. "I feel like Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn."
"The fact that the McLean Citizens Foundation has seen fit to give us a $25,000 challenge grant shows the community support for this," counters McLean Project for the Arts president Weyl. The MPA has already raised $14,000 toward matching the grant.
On top of big money, the MPA has big names behind it. Lynda Robb is its honorary chairman, and she and her husband, former governor Charles Robb, plan to host a fund raiser at their house this fall, Weyl said. The board also includes Sue DuVal, wife of state Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax); state Del. Bob Andrews (R-Fairfax) and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.).
Even the art has cachet. The MPA has a sculpture of life-size horses it wants to put in a sculpture garden behind the house. The White House has a similar work by the same artist it plans to put in one of its gardens, too. "If it's good enough for the White House, it's probably good enough for Beverly Manor," said Weyl.
Opponents of the special exception aren't swayed at all. "One would hope that the issue would be viewed as a land use issue and not a political issue," said Beverly Manor resident Pete Schellie, who called the MPA "a laudable and to-be-supported group of dedicated persons."
The application for the special exception goes before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors June 2. Both sides will continue to marshal their forces.
"More than anyone else, I've had to deal with issues of commercial intrusion into residential neighborhoods," said Lilla Richards, who is president of the McLean Citizens Foundation and chairman of the planning and zoning committee of the McLean Citizens Association. "I have spent the last 12 years on the front line fighting that kind of thing, and this is not that. It's a good neighbor. It's not a commercial use."
"When they've opponents of the special exception been talked to by someone who knows what the McLean Project for the Arts is, they change their minds," said Weyl.
Countered Bell, "It's not going in her [Weyl's] neighborhood, is it? If you don't live here [in Beverly Manor], you can't throw stones."