The bulldozers have been clearing trees on the 18.5-acre Bergdoll tract on Wisconsin Avenue in Somerset these past weeks, exactly 25 years after developers first submitted plans for the site to Montgomery County officials.
Even before the current developers bought the land in 1959, the Hecht Co. tried unsuccessfully to build a department store on the site, making the clash over the Bergdoll tract one of the longest-running land disputes in the area.
A tangle of lawsuits, negotiations, offers and counteroffers has kept the choice acerage near the newly opened Friendship Heights Metro station undeveloped until this year, when a special Maryland appeals court ruling in January cleared the way for developers to begin construction on three high-rise condominium towers.
"They are preparing the site and hope to get it under construction this spring," said Norman Glasgow, attorney for Community Somerset Associates, developers of the tract. "The site plan is approved, all litigation is completed. It's finally started to get under way."
Somerset Mayor A. Eugene Miller has seen the bulldozers, too. His tiny enclave just across the District line has stymied the development these many years as the town council demanded concessions on setbacks, traffic control, buffer zones and a host of other issues that come with development.
But Miller says even the town is relieved the generations-old dispute over the Bergdoll land that has taxed its resources and citizens is finally drawing to a close.
"Yes, it's over -- I hope so," said Miller, who remembers reading about the Bergdoll tract in the local journal when he first moved to town 22 years ago. "Being a realist, it's best for all parties to have this over with."
In the most recent battle of the drawn-out land dispute war, Somerset and Montgomery County planners had attempted to force the developers to lower the proposed height of the three towers from 21 and 19 stories to fewer than 17. But the special appeals court ruled in January that the plans for the higher towers met the "high-rise" zoning designation of the site.
"We've always maintained we are not against development," said Miller, who took office two years ago. "We just thought the height was wrong for this area. We thought it should be more in keeping with the area."
Site plans have been approved for the project, and the developers received a permit to clear the land this spring. All that remains to be done, say Miller and Glasgow, is for the developers to apply for a building permit from both the county and the town.
But the developers, Albert H. Small, Morton Funger and Ralph Ochsman, have not yet said when those applications will be forthcoming. The three were not available for comment this week, and town officials said they have not received any answers from the developers when they have asked how the project is coming.
"All I can say is that they are going forward with plans," said Glasgow, their attorney.
Named for a Philadelphia family that owned the property from the 1880s to 1946, the 30-acre Bergdoll tract has a history almost as rich as that of England's Hundred Years' War. The Bergdolls tried unsuccessfully to have the land zoned from residential to a zone that would permit high-rise construction at the end of World War II. They then sold it to the Hecht Co., which was equally unsuccessful in getting the land zoned commercial.
The current developers tried for a multifamily housing zone when they bought the property in 1959, but community residents wanted the land turned into a park. From there, the issue went through a series of lawsuits and squabbles throughout the early 1960s. Sometime in 1963 the town agreed to change the zoning of 18.2 acres of the Bergdoll tract to a high-rise designation on the condition that the remaining 12 acres be turned over to the town as parkland.
That agreement, which failed, became the basis for more than 15 years of litigation.
"It's over now," said Miller. "I can't imagine anything that would hold up the building permits. Then again, who can tell?"