Many things lead to disputes among neighbors -- the neon fuchsia on newly painted siding, the massive boat that gets parked on a front lawn, the fence that goes up where none had before.
But in a beautiful and bucolic corner of the world south of Poolesville, a corner that lies along a state-designated scenic byway and within the county's vaunted agricultural reserve, the issue is far more extraordinary. One hundred ninety feet more extraordinary, to be exact.
Four ham radio towers that will rise 19 stories into the sky are under construction in a field of soybeans at Sugarland and Partnership roads. A county official approved the required building permit in June because no language in local ordinances addressed, much less prohibited, such a project. In doing so, however, he warned the new property owner that area residents weren't going to be happy.
"What is illegal and what you should do are two different things," zoning examiner David Niblock noted this week.
John V. Evans, a retired Comsat executive and ham radio enthusiast, proceeded with his plans. His neighbors learned of them only when the trucks began showing up two weeks ago to lay the concrete foundations and anchor the steel posts that will hold the towers' guy wires. They reacted just as Niblock had expected -- with stunned dismay and then collective outrage.
"We were basically blindsided," said Daniel Fistere, who owns a 60-acre farm across Partnership Road and, like many of the residents, ceded his development rights to the county to help ensure that this part of Montgomery remained agricultural open space.
"Here I am," said Ben Allnutt, a longtime farmer down Sugarland Road, "under these strict development restrictions, and someone gallivants in here and he can do anything he wants."
The Federal Communications Commission directs local governments to "reasonably accommodate" ham radio towers and largely considers them a zoning matter, not a federal regulatory concern. Montgomery puts such towers in their own category, apart from cell phone towers or commercial radio and television towers, which is why neither the county's Office of Cable Communications nor the county's tower review committee knew of Evans's intentions before they started getting calls of concern and protest.
That's when County Council member Michael Knapp (D), who represents the Poolesville area, also heard about it. In the two weeks since, his staff has been researching all aspects of the situation, from the language of FCC regulations to aviation considerations, because of nearby Dulles International Airport, to the particulars of county policy.
"We've definitely stumbled upon something that's not been thought out in terms of land use," said Joyce Fuhrmann, an aide to Knapp.
Indeed, despite the unprecedented magnitude of this project, county officials decided that not even a special exception permit could be required, which would have triggered a public hearing. The area's special status as an agricultural reserve afforded no special protection because the impact on actual crop production would not be significant.
"We've been passionate about protecting the land," acknowledged John Zawitoski, director of the county's farmland preservation programs, and yet "there's really nothing in the zoning [regulations] that tells them they can't do it."
"This may be a catalyst for bringing about a closer review of structures like this," Zawitoski predicted.
Fistere and other neighbors say Evans has told them about his hopes for how far the towers will enable him to communicate globally. Evans, who bought the 44-acre tract in March for $1.05 million, did not return calls to his current home in Clarksburg.
Their most likely resort, some say, will be through the courts. A lawsuit could come as early as this week.
"If he puts those up," said resident Dave Phillips, "it'll be an act of God to get them down."