The tiny slice of wooded land is barely noticeable to anyone passing over the Key Bridge or zooming up Interstate 66, but Tevy Schlafman has been fighting for it most of his adult life.
The spectacular views from the property alone -- a sweeping vista of the Potomac River to the Kennedy Center and beyond -- justify the decades of costly legal battles, he said. Not to mention that this 0.6 acre, directly southeast of the Key Bridge in Rosslyn, is now worth an estimated $18 million.
Schlafman made something of a life's odyssey wresting back control of the land from the state of Virginia, which annexed it in 1963 to build I-66 and never used it. Though he finally won that battle, Arlington County is blocking his efforts to develop the long-fallow land with a 10-story luxury condominium building, a proposal that has drawn strong criticism from neighborhood groups, Rosslyn businesses, the National Park Service and county officials.
So he's suing again.
"There's been a lot of heartache and a lot of obstacles," said Schlafman, a Bethesda landscape architect. "It is a quest. A quest for fairness. The state unfairly took this land and never used it. . . . I get very emotional when I talk about this property."
On Wednesday, Schlafman filed a lawsuit in Arlington County Circuit Court seeking to overturn the County Board's decision last month to reject his proposal for the 43-unit condominium building, saying the county's decision was "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable."
"Mr. Schlafman feels like a blind mouse in a procedural maze of false leads, false hopes and no perceivable way out," his attorneys argued in the complaint. "The County forced Mr. Schlafman to spend the last four years in a futile effort to find an acceptable way to put his property to economic use, while it now appears . . . development of the property, if any is ever allowed, can in no way interfere with currently existing views in to or out of Rosslyn."
County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac said yesterday that he is reviewing the document and did not want to discuss the ongoing litigation.
MacIsaac said that the county negotiated in good faith with Schlafman but that the building he eventually proposed was simply too tall. The Radnor/Fort Myer Heights Civic Association had argued that the building would block the dazzling views enjoyed by residents in nearby buildings and guests at the Key Bridge Marriott hotel, said the group's president, Stanley Karson.
"They're not preventing Schlafman from doing something. . . . They're trying to make sure the kind of development that goes there works. Something not quite so imposing," MacIsaac said.
Schlafman's saga began in 1963, when the state annexed the land to make way for the construction of I-66. Schlafman's father-in-law, William H. Wolowitz -- an inventor who patented a prototype for the typewriter correction key -- had owned the land since 1946 and had a small office there.
When the highway was completed, however, the family's portion of the land wasn't used. In 1982, Schlafman set out to repurchase the land for the original price of $455,000, using a little-known Virginia law that allows the original owners to buy back private property taken through eminent domain. The state opposed the move, but in 1993 an Arlington Circuit Court judge ruled in Schlafman's favor. He repurchased the land in 1998.
Shortly thereafter, Schlafman engineered a complicated deal with the developer of a neighboring hotel and condo project that would have allowed Arlington to acquire the land to preserve as a park, but the deal fell through. County officials now concede that was a major mistake on their part.
In the intervening years, the property has been eyed by rowing and crew advocates who have long searched for a good place to build a boathouse along the Potomac. They supported Schlafman because he offered to contribute $1 million to the construction of a boathouse on an adjacent piece of state property if the condo site plan were approved. The fact that Arlington does not own that piece of land was a major reason Schlafman's proposal was denied by the board last month, board members said.
Throughout his lengthy quest, Schlafman has earned a reputation among state and county government officials as a genuinely nice man who also happens to be a scrappy fighter and a major pain.
"He really is a character," said Erik Meyers, chairman of the county's boathouse task force. "He's a fascinating individual. I think he really felt his father-in-law had been wronged and government agencies were not playing fair. . . . He's simply following through on his commitment to get this back for his family, and now it's back. They're trying to figure out what to do with it."
If Schlafman has his way, he said he will be doing something with the land and hopes to recoup the more than $1.5 million he has spent in legal fees over the years.
"I'm the most stubborn person you ever met, and I'm never going to go away," he vowed. "We won it back fair and square. . . . And now we have the land back, we're being treated as intruders."