Just beyond Bloomingdale’s, Cartier, Gucci and the Louis Vuitton store on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights, some of the area’s ritziest shopping gives way to another sort of paradise: the small town of Somerset, Md.
Drivers could pass the entire enclave of 440 homes, many worth more than $1 million, in the blink of an eye.
Somerset is just fine with that.
“I think it’s the best place to live probably in the world but definitely the East Coast,” says the town mayor, Jeff Slavin, strolling through the early fall foliage in his sweats and sneakers. “The big challenge is maintaining this oasis. That’s what I first said when I was running 12 years ago.”
Slavin is joined by the rest of the Somerset walking group, which meets three times a week to stroll the 0.28 square miles that make up the verdant Montgomery County town nestled between Bethesda and Chevy Chase, bordered by Wisconsin Avenue on the east and Little Falls Parkway on the west.
Somerset has defended and promoted its small-town charm since its incorporation in 1906. Residents rallied in 1949 for a public school, now Somerset Elementary. The town has a stringent tree-removal policy to protect the foliage and, in the day of digital, has fought to keep its blue U.S. Postal Service mailboxes.
Many of the town’s fights, though, are to keep things out: clinics, condominiums and traffic.
The community famously voted to de-annex some of its own land in 1988 when a developer began building the Somerset House, a luxury condominium on the south edge of town.
“They are aggravating people,” says one of the project’s developers, Albert H. Small. “They object to everything.”
Walking on Warwick Place, Slavin explains what it takes to keep the town so charming.
He points out the many houses that were rebuilt after being razed. “This is a teardown. This is a teardown. This is a teardown,” he says. There are still some low-slung, Mid-Century homes complete with carports, but they shrink into the trees compared with the larger, more-modern homes.
Slavin, a licensed real estate professional, moved to Somerset 14 years ago from Friendship Heights. His own home on Warwick, a stone cottage with a landscaped garden, was built in 1938. It’s since been updated: He added a garage and changed the driveway but kept the home’s character.
The community is made up of single-family homes, and Slavin says it’s important that they maintain their historic charm, even as vintage homes are demolished and replaced with larger ones. “Some of the older, long-term residents are probably still concerned about it,” says Slavin, but it hasn’t escalated. “When the people move in and they’re such great people and part of the community, it kind of melts away.”
Monthly council meetings are held in the Town Hall, a farmhouse-red building with white trim and a front porch. At the October meeting, Slavin sits at a table with Vice President Marnie Shaul to his right and Richard Charnovich, the town’s manager and clerk, on his left. The four other council members complete the row. Townspeople trickle in, many bearing architectural plans for proposed changes to their homes.
Some motions pass quickly, like Steve Surko’s application to raise and slope his sunroom’s roof. When he shows up to the meeting, Shaul waves him away, “Steve, we passed you.” He shrugs, “Oh, okay, good” and heads right back out the door.
Other proposals provoke prolonged debate.
Samantha Sapin wants a generator. She wants to put it eight feet from the edge of her property line. Larry Plummer, the town inspector, tells the council that he wouldn’t recommend it — it probably won’t pass the noise limits so close to the edge. Montgomery requires that generators be no louder than 55 decibels, as loud as a typical conversation, when heard from the closest property edge.
Suddenly, the council is skeptical, and a lengthy back-and-forth ensues.
The audience of about 20 people shift in their seats. One woman standing by the door and still wearing her coat sighs audibly.
Franny Peale, the council’s newest member, ultimately proposes a conditional approval. If the proposed position of the generator fails the noise test, the homeowner will have 90 days to move it until it passes. Cathy Pickar is the only council member to support it.
Sapin’s request is ultimately postponed. In the hallway with her builder, Sapin shrugs it off. “This is a neighborhood where you often have to go to Plan B or C,” she says later. “I know it doesn’t always look like it in the meeting, but the community is neighborly.”
She values the chance for citizens to speak their minds. “I think it’s important to have all sorts of voices heard.”
Civic participation is a hallmark of the town, according to longtime resident Zola Dincin Schneider.
“People are interested in the quality of life in this town and how to make it better. . . . I think that’s much harder to do in neighborhoods that don’t have some history or content or somebody leading them,” she says.
Schneider moved to Somerset in 1962 with her three sons for the access to transportation and a great elementary school.
She quickly got involved in organizing an exchange program with Whittier Elementary School, in Northwest Washington, to make sure her children had experiences beyond their small town.
More recently, she helped create Helping Hands, which provide rides to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store or whatever else residents might need help with. Neighbors call her or Barbara Zeughauser, another council member, with their request, and a call for volunteers goes out.
Schneider initially opposed the town’s push to de-annex the condominium development land but says staying small helps keep the community connected.
Walter Behr, the mayor at the time of that vote, led the opposition.
“I was very much in favor of de-annexation, because I thought that the interests of the high-rise residents would be different than single-family homeowners,” he says.
Small, one of the developers of the Somerset House, concedes that his project, three buildings complete with an indoor and outdoor pool, might have brought a crowd with interests varying from those of the town but insists that Somerset missed out. “They lost all the tax revenue they would’ve got from it,” says Small. “They would’ve had a win-win situation.”
The condominium residents didn’t care anyway, according to Small. “It’s the best condominium in America,” he says. “Why would they?”
He claims the decades-long fight in and out of court with the town took 20 years off his life and that living there isn’t something he envies. “That’s not a privilege,” says Small, who lives in Bethesda, “that’s an extra political pain in the neck.”
Slavin disagrees. “We’re just an incredible oasis.”
In September, the town welcomed more than 20 new families at the annual Newcomers’ Party at the pool. People move to Somerset, according to Slavin, because “they know that they have this friendly town government that’s protecting their lifestyle.”
When laws aren’t enough, the town can provide a little extra guidance. At the October meeting, the mayor suggests an easy fix to the ongoing problem of owners walking their dogs unleashed.
“I am going to personally buy them a leash and mail it to their home,” Slavin says.
The council prefers fines.
“We’ll continue to pursue,” says Slavin, moving on to the next item on the agenda.