Woodmont is a community that has been mostly quiet and convivial over the years, its towering oaks and swank manses seemingly disturbed only by the white noise of vehicles rushing along Spout Run Parkway just off George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Besides sharing a similar Zip code and Arlington address, nothing there suggests that, just a mile away, are the busy communities of Courthouse or modest homes of Lyon Village whose neighborhood activists often engage in boisterous debates about the latest developments and the quality of life in their back yards.
Yet a project ostensibly proposed to connect Woodmont in North Arlington with its neighbors across Spout Run and the rest of the county has slowly torn apart segments of the affluent community.
A small band of homeowners is trying to persuade county officials to build a bike and pedestrian bridge across Spout Run Parkway to connect Woodmont to North Highland, a large area of apartments, townhouses and single-family dwellings just north of Lyon Village. Woodmont is bounded by the Potomac River to the north and east, Lorcom Lane to the south and Military Road to the west.
Supporters say the low-slung bridge, which could cost as much as $4 million and would span nearly 300 feet across the parkway, would help to connect the isolated hodgepodge of stone homes, wood-frame mansions and cedar bungalows of the neighborhood with more urban parts of the county.
Bridge advocates, who have quietly been rallying support of county officials for almost a year, say it would provide Woodmont easy access to the Courthouse Metro station and thus the county at large.
"There are a number of benefits for the neighborhood," said Carla von Bernewitz, who lives on North 24th Street and is a major force behind the bridge proposal. The community "would have easier access to Metro, easier access to the shops along Clarendon, and it would be a safer walk from our neighborhood."
Von Bernewitz, a federal government executive, said the bridge would also help to connect several bike trails, a goal of Arlington planners seeking a bike-path master plan for the county.
But legions of opponents, including many next-door neighbors and longtime friends, stand in the way of Von Bernewitz and other bridge proponents. Opponents say the bridge will not bring all of the benefits that supporters tout, particularly quicker access to Metro. In addition, many express concern that it would invite crime across Spout Run.
Although many in the community oppose building any span over the parkway to replace a one-lane wooden bridge that collapsed more than 30 years ago, opponents are most upset about the kind of bridge favored by Von Bernewitz and others. They have proposed one modeled after a unique Leonardo da Vinci bridge, designed by the artist-scientist in the 16th century and resurrected by Norwegian architect Vebjorn Sand.
Sand wants to put at least one da Vinci bridge on each continent to promote the design and unite countries under the artist's banner.
Von Bernewitz, 46, and her husband, Steve Baur, 41, say such a bridge would be a stately and grand addition to their community, something to spark neighborhood pride. Opponents say it would be an eyesore and an unwanted attraction in the peaceful environs.
Residents on the other side of the project, near the Hillside townhouses, are also challenging the need for a bridge.
"If you really add it up, it's unnecessary," said David Williams, 41, a Woodmont resident. "The fact that our neighborhood would be affected by the crowds and the congestion that the bridge would attract . . . we don't believe that more needs to be added."
The debate, like so many in Arlington, is rooted largely in the way each side views the community's future. For proponents, the goal is to connect Woodmont with urban areas, particularly along Wilson and Clarendon boulevards where shops, supermarkets and restaurants proliferate.
"Why wouldn't anyone want to be closer to the shops and amenities that the rest of the county has to offer?" asked Rose Kehoe, president of the Woodmont Civic Association. Although the organization has not taken an official position on the bridge, Kehoe said she is frustrated with opponents and their reasoning.
Yet for some opponents, the metaphor of a walkable urban community holds no cachet. To them, solitude is one of the neighborhood's attributes and should be preserved, not disturbed by making easier for people to enter on foot and by bike. They also say that with a new bridge, Metro access would be about the same as it is now.
"Congestion and traffic are things that the county is trying to avoid," said Williams, a federal worker. "Trying to encourage it in a community that can't sustain it doesn't seem to make sense to me."
The debate has also stirred controversy about a historic mansion owned by a powerful religious organization that some Woodmont residents say is unfairly influencing discussions. They have long expressed concern about the $4.4 million building formerly known as the Doubleday Mansion and now as the Cedars. The mansion is owned by the Fellowship Foundation, which runs the annual National Prayer Breakfast and has been a quiet neighbor for years.
Many people affiliated with organization, sitting as board members or helping with its functions, live in Woodmont. Some bridge proponents say the group has exercised undue influence by organizing residents against the bridge in an attempt to maintain privacy and seclusion.
Foundation officials did not return several telephone calls seeking comment on the debate and the group's relationship with residents not affiliated with the organization. Several residents familiar with the group's position said the foundation is neutral on the subject.
Whether the organization has unduly influenced the debate is irrelevant to many opponents. They maintain that the disagreement is more about whether the millions of dollars needed to construct the bridge is a worthy expense, especially if it would benefit only a select few.
"The Cedars have nothing really to do with this, at least for me," Williams said. "What we're most concerned with is whether this is the best thing for our neighborhood and the best thing for the community."
With its towering trees and large homes, Woodmont presents a stark contrast with nearby urban neighborhoods. In interviews, many residents opposed to the bridge said this suburban feel is worth preserving. For others, the controversy is more straightforward.
"I don't mind being a part of Arlington and its concept of the urban village," said David Parks, 46, who started a petition against the bridge. "This is more about whether we should spend precious resources on something like this and if there are really any benefits to building it there."
The debate has shaken the neighborhood of 300 homes. At a community forum in November, angry residents cut off each other and the meeting's moderator, some thunderous in vocalizing opposition.
As a way of placating everyone, the civic association and a special subcommittee appointed to discuss the bridge decided to send each home a survey that would serve as an official vote. The questionnaire went out Jan. 2, and results are to be tallied next Wednesday.
About 75 percent of respondents to a petition circulated in the neighborhood have declared opposition, and opponents say those numbers will change little when votes are counted.
A Familiar Crossing
Nostalgia is also a factor. The original Doubleday Bridge was built in the mid-19th century as a one-lane vehicle span connecting two remote neighborhoods in a new Arlington, county records show. Residents who remember the wooden structure said it was an integral part of Woodmont and North Highland.
The bridge collapsed in November 1970 when a runaway car struck its supports. It was the county's last single-lane vehicle bridge, according to newspaper reports. Some people would like to see a bridge there again, particularly because the county has talked about it informally for years.
"It would be an asset for someone like me because I would be able to get around the neighborhoods a lot easier," said Lee Fortna, 72, who has lived in North Highland for 34 years and recalls the old bridge. "The county has always talked about building another one, and it would be important to this community."
Yet disagreement persists there, too. North Highland residents note that the bridge would be in the middle of a townhouse community built since the bridge collapse. They have written to their Woodmont counterparts, challenging them to oppose the bridge for reasons North Highlanders say they share -- to preserve neighborhood peace and tranquillity. Last week, North Highland residents voted, 28 to 9, in opposition.
"Wake up, Woodmont . . . Stop the Bridge," reads a flier North Highland sent to Woodmont residents in June. "Preserve the Serenity of Your Neighborhood."
Like many opponents, those in North Highland -- particularly in the townhouse community of Hillcrest at the edge of Spout Run across from Woodmont -- say they are most turned off by the prospect of a da Vinci bridge in their back yards.
The only such bridge in existence is in a town outside Oslo. Officials of the Leonardo Bridge Project in Seattle said Arlington represents the group's best shot at building a da Vinci bridge in the United States. A similar effort fell through in Des Moines. Others are continuing in Japan and Australia, officials said.
"We see it as an opportunity to connect communities," said Melinda Iverson, international project liaison for the bridge project foundation. "That's the mission of building bridges across the globe."
In any case, concrete plans for the bridge are years away. County officials said they are waiting for the neighborhood to make a decision before moving forward with the planning process.
Although records indicate general plans to consider a bridge at the site, no specific design has been approved, nor has money been allocated.
"First, we need to hear from the community," said Charles Denney, bike and pedestrian program manager for the county. "If they support it, we'll then make a decision whether to move forward."
For information on da Vinci's bridge design and proposals for replacing the Doubleday span, visit http://members.bellatlantic.net/ ~ vonbernc/index_files/slide0001.htm.