Gray Flannel Dwarf

8/28/2004

“Midgetville”

This probably is the explanation for the rumours I’ve heard, on and off over the years, about a hidden little town somewhere in fairfax where “little people” live.

Article is kind of sad though, actually, on several levels.

Article saved below.

Emotional Investment
A Family’s Decision to Sell Vienna’s ‘Midgetville’ Ignites Bitter Opposition

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page VA16

“Midgetville” doesn’t look like a place over which a war is raging.

The eight acres along the Washington & Old Dominion trail in Vienna, overgrown with wild grapevines and ivy and populated by deer and foxes, are sheltered by towering pines, tulip poplars and mulberry trees.

Members of the family that has owned the land for more than 100 years still live there quietly in aged cottages scattered throughout the property. The diminutive dwellings have spawned an urban legend that they are the homes of midgets — hence the nickname.

But the family’s decision to sell the land to a developer has sparked an emotional battle in the Fairfax County neighborhood — and within the family itself.

Some homeowners in the vicinity say the proposed development ignores Midgetville’s rich history and would destroy an oasis in their midst.

“It’s basically been untouched for 70 years,” said David Levey, a resident of a nearby neighborhood who is leading opposition to the project. “It’s an absolute jewel of old Vienna.”

So far, neighbors have managed to delay county approval of the project. A Planning Commission vote, set for June, has been postponed until later this year.

But descendants of the newspaper publisher who purchased the land more than a century ago now want to sell it to a developer for $4 million, and they angrily accuse neighbors and county officials of interfering with their property rights.

Beset by illness, struggling to afford the $14,000 annual property tax bills and tired of teenage vandals, the family members say the land has become a financial and emotional burden.

“Everybody has decided that the history stuff is more important than what reality is,” said Jane Nixon Leppin, a great-granddaughter of Alexander J. Wedderburn, publisher of the Alexandria Item, who purchased the property in 1892. It is now a wedge of land bordered by the W&OD trail on the north and Cedar Lane on the east.

“I understand that none of us likes change, and this county has gone through a lot of change,” Leppin said in a recent interview.

But, said Leppin, who owns the land with her three sisters, her family should not be made to pay for residents’ uneasiness with the rapid disappearance of undeveloped land in Fairfax.

“It breaks my heart to see it go,” said Leppin, who is also battling her own daughter, who opposes the sale of the family property. “But it’s going to have to go, because my family cannot support it anymore.”

She began to weep.

The unbroken lineage of the Wedderburn land is remarkable in a county where most longtime land-holding families sold out decades ago to developers.

Indeed, the property is a throwback to an earlier, transformative time for Fairfax, when the rural county began evolving from an “agricultural hinterland to suburb,” according to a consultant’s report prepared for Elm Street Development Inc. of McLean, which wants to develop the Wedderburn land.

Wedderburn, who eventually owned about 300 acres in and around today’s Vienna, used the land now known as Midgetville for summer fairs for area farmers. A hotel and several cabins were already on the property when he purchased it. Along the north side of the Wedderburn property ran the Washington, Ohio and Western Railroad, which extended from Alexandria through Fairfax County, stopping at Wedderburn station along the way.

In the late 19th century, Fairfax was attracting increasing numbers of urban dwellers, who rode the rail line out to the bucolic county to escape the noisy, crowded District. Attracted by the clean air and green spaces, they stayed at the various resorts that dotted the railroad line. Wealthy Washington businessmen began building summer homes there.

With their cottages and hotel, the Wedderburn family catered to summertime clientele. Alexander Wedderburn even drew up plans to subdivide some of his land into 79 small lots for a community called Wedderburn Heights. He filed those plans with the county, although they never reached fruition.

The hotel burned down in 1901, according to historical accounts. But a two-story stucco home built on the property around the turn of the century is still there today, barely visible behind a wall of greenery to passing bicycle riders along the W&OD trail.

The property was passed down through the Wedderburn family. In the 1930s, one of Alexander Wedderburn’s sons, George, built six small, one-story Spanish-style rental cottages that still stand. According to family lore, he furnished them with pianos because he loved music.

Polly Wedderburn Nixon, daughter of Alexander’s son Augustus, inherited the property in 1944. When Nixon died in 1995, it passed to her four daughters — Jane Nixon Leppin, Eloise Nixon Jones, Nan Nixon and Pollyanne Marcieski.

The property has been virtually unchanged for decades. A dozen small dwellings — half of them tumbledown and uninhabited — nestle under a towering canopy of trees.

Jane Leppin lives in one of the cottages, and one of her daughters, Janel Wedderburn Leppin, occupies another. The family rents out several others to artists, musicians and coffee-shop workers.

But Jane Leppin said that ownership of the land became increasingly difficult over the years because of mounting property taxes, vandals and the rising cost of upkeep on the dwellings.

In fact, the family dislikes the “Midgetville” nickname because for decades the legend of the area has attracted teenage “midget hunters” who invade the property late at night to race their cars along the narrow dirt road encircling the compound, honking their horns and throwing bottles, eggs and other trash at the homes.

Once, a rock crashed through her mother’s window, Leppin said, just missing the elderly woman.

Years ago, she said, Polly Nixon began exploring selling the land and sought the advice of Fairfax developer John T. “Til” Hazel. He urged Nixon to sell the land as quickly as possible, said Leppin. Otherwise, she said, Hazel warned that “everybody who moves in around you will think that your trees are their trees, and the longer you are there, the more they will insist that the trees stay.”

The Wedderburn sisters signed a deal with a developer that ultimately fell through. In 2002, they signed one with Elm Street Development, agreeing to sell the land to the McLean firm if Elm Street could get the approvals for a residential project.

Elm Street teamed with Falls Church developer JCE Inc., which owns five acres adjacent to the property.

The original development plans for the combined 13 acres called for 29 homes, up to 6,000 square feet each, on quarter-acre lots clustered on the site, with two large areas left undeveloped and a buffer along the W&OD trail — totaling about four acres of open space. Developers pledged to landscape along the property line of the W&OD trail to screen the homes’ rear yards from the trail. The county Planning Commission staff had recommended approval of the original plan.

But opponents say that the amount of open space is exaggerated, since one of those areas is actually for a storm water management pond. In all, they say, the project crams too many homes on the land compared with surrounding neighborhoods, which feature smaller homes spread across half-acre lots.

“It’s too big,” said Levey. “What we’re seeing . . . is ignoring the history and the topography of the site.”

Some government bodies have also expressed concern about the project.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has said that the buffer area between the homes and the bike trail property line — in some places just 30 feet — is inadequate. And the town of Vienna says it is concerned about the increased traffic load on its streets.

In June, the developers withdrew their plan and said they would resubmit a joint proposal within the next few weeks that they hope will resolve some of the concerns of opponents of the project.

But zoning lawyer Greg Riegle, a spokesman for the project, pointed out that the developers’ original proposal calls for an average of just over two homes an acre — about the same as, or less than, the density of surrounding neighborhoods. It is less than what is shown on the county’s comprehensive plan, which calls for two to three dwelling units an acre there.

“We think — and have always thought — that these 29 houses fit well into the community,” said Riegle.

The land is zoned for one home an acre, and opponents are organizing an effort to get the county’s comprehensive plan reduced to that level on the property.

James Perry, a principal with Elm Street Development, said the density of the proposed project “is in the middle of what is already out there” in the surrounding communities.

But the developers, who met with homeowners in May, have failed to mollify neighbors. Two dozen neighboring homeowners urged county planning commissioners at a May public hearing to reject the deal. Residents have also met with Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) and Providence planning commissioner Kenneth A. Lawrence to lobby against the project.

“It would change the entire complexion of the area,” said Stu Vogt, who has lived in a neighborhood adjoining the property since 1966.

“I don’t think you can hold up progress,” added Ruth Zeul, who has lived nearby since 1957. “But I would like to see it less dense, or not with such big houses on small lots.”

Janel Wedderburn Leppin, who was raised on the property, also strongly opposes the sale, said Jane Leppin. The family’s insistence on going through with the deal has seriously strained the relationship with her daughter, she said. “We argue about this: How fair is it for a family to have invested their life in a property and then need to get that livelihood out of that property?” asked Leppin.

Janel Leppin refused to comment about the sale. But last month she started a music school — the Wedderburn School of Music — on the site.

Her mother is skeptical that her daughter’s efforts will succeed in keeping the land in the family.

“She has some lovely ideas, but you have to make them come to reality,” said Leppin.

Leppin said a major factor pushing the sale is the expense associated with a genetic kidney ailment — polycystic kidney disease — that runs in her family.

Leppin undergoes kidney dialysis at home four times a day and needs a kidney transplant. She and her husband had hoped to use their share of the proceeds of the sale of the Wedderburn land to buy a home closer to the Johns Hopkins medical facility in Baltimore where she will go eventually for a kidney transplant. They also want to set aside some money in case any of their children contract the disease.

But now, she said, neighbors and foot-dragging county officials are destroying those hopes.

“The way we’re looking at it now,” she said bitterly, “we’ll be lucky if it’s another two years” before the family project is approved.

“I am just furious at the community as a whole right now,” she said. “To me, it’s like a bunch of tigers out there.”

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


cswiii @ 2:57 am

Leave a Reply