Residents of Somerset, a tiny enclave of exclusive single-family houses just over the District line in Montgomery County, have debated for years whether to deannex the town's 18-acre Bergdoll tract while they fought various development proposals for the site in court.
Now, with the first of three 20-story luxury condominiums about to be occupied, a majority of the town's residents want to put the question to a vote. To that end, 453 of the town's 738 registered voters have signed a petition calling for deannexation and asking for a referendum on the issue.
Mayor Walter J. Behr said the town council now has 60 days "to decide whether to hold a special election on the issue or vote on the amendment to change Somerset's boundaries during our regular general election in April."
Charles Edson, a Somerset resident and Washington lawyer who chaired a committee that studied the deannexation issue last year, said, "It really came down to a style-of-life issue" rather than concern over tax revenues. Edson's committee estimated that the addition of 500 luxury apartments would reduce property taxes for individual homeowners by $152 a year.
"For many people, the issue is one of maintaining control rather than increasing tax revenues," Edson said. Many people are worried that the apartment dwellers will out-vote residents who live in single-family homes at town meetings and generally change the character of the town, he said.
"It's not a big dollar issue either way," Behr said.
"Some residents were afraid that the apartment dwellers would not share the interests of the townspeople," Behr said.
"People in Somerset want things to stay the way they've always been," Edson said.
Incorporated in 1906, Somerset -- bounded by Wisconsin Avenue on the east, River Road and North Park Avenue on the south, Little Falls Parkway on the west and Cumberland on the north -- has allowed only about 20 new homes to be built in the last quarter century.
Many of the existing 413 single-family homes date to the 1880s and are now worth $300,000, due largely to the fact that Somerset offers wooded seclusion, an excellent elementary school and an easy walk to the Friendship Heights Metro station and the chic boutiques of Wisconsin Avenue's so-called "Gold Coast."
Judy Engelberg, part of the petition drive for the deannexation referendum, said residents simply want the whole town to have a chance to vote on the deannexation question.
But townspeople said they also are worried that the developers of the adjacent luxury condos -- called Somerset House -- will file suit to block any move to deannex, Behr said.
A court fight is a distinct possibility, a lawyer for the developers and other observers said, because once separated from the town limits the Bergdoll tract reverts back to Montgomery County jurisdiction.
At that time, Somerset House may no longer be exempt from a county ordinance which requires projects with more than 50 dwelling units to reserve 12 1/2 percent of the units for moderate-income buyers.
Somerset never enacted the county's moderately priced dwelling unit law.
It also sued the county, and won, when county planners tried to make Somerset House developers conform to the mixed-income ordinance, saying the additional units would raise the project's overall density.
"The record is clear. We are in opposition to deannnexation, and we will contest whatever action they take that would adversely impact our plan," said Norman Glasgow, zoning attorney for Somerset House's developers, Hermen Greenberg, Ralph Ochsmen, Albert Small and Morton Funger.
Glasgow said that in addition to being required to offer the moderately priced units, families in Somerset House would probably lose access to 12 acres of parkland that the developers deeded to the town from the original Bergdoll tract.
"We'd like people in the town to be sensible. We don't want to fight, but we see deannexation as a very discriminatory action, apparently motivated by the fact that these new residents of Somerset will live in high-rises," he said.
"What they don't seem to understand is that these new people are going to be good citizens who've paid for the right to use the parkland and receive the other town services," Glasgow said.
Meanwhile, neighboring Friendship Heights, the independent taxing district that flanks the Bergdoll tract immediately to the south, has expressed interest in acquiring the parcel if Somerset voters cut the project from their town boundaries.
But those familiar with the dispute question whether an annexation bid by Friendship Heights would provide Somerset House with the safe haven it wants since Friendship Heights enforces the county's moderate-priced unit law.
Whatever the end result of the deannexation vote, the debate has not hurt sales in the first high-rise, which is scheduled for occupancy early next year.
All 158 units in the 20-story tower, which cost from $300,000 to $1.4 million, have been sold. Construction is now under way on a clubhouse and conference center.