Driving down Rte. 28 in Darnestown, many passers-by probably wouldn't notice the strip of abandoned, boarded-up houses where the road meets Rte. 112.
But among residents of Darnestown in rural southwestern Montgomery County, four such homes not only have been noticed, they triggered a local panic last week. For them, the boarding was both an ugly addition and, along with the demolition of another house, a sign of unwanted development reaching their neighborhood.
For Nathan Landow, who owns the property, the outcry over possible construction there has brought on a series of meetings, media inquiries and, ultimately, headaches as he seeks to find a use for his land that is profitable yet still overcomes local objections and county demands. In short, the brouhaha over 4.4 acres in Darnestown is a textbook case of the emotional battle over development that often grips Montgomery communities.
During the past two years, Landow, a Bethesda developer, has purchased 18 acres in Darnestown. Residents say they are especially concerned about his acquisition of the 4.4-acre, commercially zoned lot just across from the local Texaco station.
Robert Fazio, who heads the commercialization oversight committee for the Greater Darnestown Civic Association, said residents fear "a major development that just won't be in sync with what we have and what we want here in Darnestown."
The lot is prime property. Located at the town's most visible intersection, it is sandwiched between new housing developments and the older, more modest homes and small farms that give the 1,100-family community its rural flavor.
Landow, a prominent Democratic Party fund-raiser, insists that he has not yet decided what to do with the property, but considers a shopping center "a good possibility." As with many shopping centers, he said, having a grocery store as an anchor is "under consideration, and we do want something that will blend with the area."
But Darnestown residents say that even if Landow has not made up his mind, they have made up theirs. Fazio, who two years ago moved from his Germantown town house to avoid the development crunch, said residents are working to preserve the historic character of the property and fear Landow may not share their commitment.
Bobbi Hahn, executive director of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission, said the property, which consists of houses dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, is among 50 districts in Montgomery considered for historic status. Hahn said the commission has recommended that the Darnestown property not receive historic status, but the county Planning Board has yet to act on that recommendation.
The designation could complicate any development of the property because any changes would require a special work permit to guarantee that historic character or features are maintained.
For months, Fazio said he and other civic association members have discussed ways to work with Landow to ensure that his plans are agreeable to the residents. In the past six months, Landow said, he has met two or three times with residents.
When the houses were boarded last week and marked with fluorescent paint, the issue came to a head. The civic activists jumped into action, calling Landow and newspapers and organizing more meetings on the issue.
Fazio and other residents complained that Landow's use of fluorescent paint to scrawl "Keep Out" on the houses was a gimmick designed to make residents so disgusted with the appearance of the structures that they would be more amenable to plans for a shopping center.
Landow denied any "strategy," saying his lawyers urged him to board up the houses and post the warning signs to avoid potential liability problems. But he arranged for the fluorescent orange warnings to be covered with "a less objectionable color."
Alice Prugh, whose farm in the Seneca Highlands subdivision abuts on the property, said, "We just can't wait that long to make our feelings known. We have to protect ourselves from developers turning Darnestown into something that it wasn't meant to be."