In Washington Grove, Working Around the Trees

By Janet Lubman Rathner
Original - Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 13, 2006

The small town of Washington Grove is made up of about 225 homes, many of them only a few feet from their neighbors. (Photo By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
For those who like manicured yards, expect to park right at their house and prefer more than a few feet of separation from the neighbors, Washington Grove is not the place to call home.

In fact, according to Kathy Lehman, town clerk of Washington Grove, life in her town would be downright aggravating and impractical for those people.

"Parking is an issue. For some, you can't park anywhere near your house. You're really close to your neighbor. Some cottages are only a foot or two apart. If you don't like that and you're afraid of big trees falling on your houses, you shouldn't live here," said Lehman, 50, who has spent most of her life in and around the Montgomery County town.

In her case, the advantages of this little municipality -- about 225 homes surrounded by more than 200 acres of forest and parkland -- far outweigh the inconveniences.

"This is a live-and-let-live area," Lehman said. "Eclectic people live here. We're all a little nutty."

Washington Grove, just outside Gaithersburg, is a mix of century-old Carpenter Gothic cottages and bungalows surrounded by ranchers, Cape Cods and Colonials. There is no mail delivery. Residents go to the town post office -- it's in the lone commercial strip, along with a hair salon, consignment shop, catering business and insurance office.

The town started in the 1870s as a religious retreat for Washington's Methodist families. To escape the area's steamy summers, they would hop on the Metropolitan Branch of the B&O Railroad and find respite and religion in a tree-canopied tent colony set up around a sacred circle and tabernacle. The facility was administered by the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association. Over the years, the camp became a stop on the Chautauqua lecture circuit. The tents were replaced by a hotel that no longer stands and by cottages, many of which remain occupied today.

Eventually, the Washington Grove Camp Meeting Association dissolved, and in 1937, the town incorporated. In 1980, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today a bureaucracy of 2 1/2 people keeps Washington Grove running: a maintenance man and a town clerk, who are full-time employees, and a treasurer, who is not.

John Compton, Washington Grove's volunteer mayor, has lived in the community for 15 years. He said resident involvement makes up for any shortfall in paid staff. "The town wouldn't be what it is without volunteers," he said. "We have committees that look into zoning, recreation, forestry, the Maple Lake," where Washington Grove children go for swimming lessons in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

"There are so many activities in town," said Shelley Winkler, an eight-year resident.

"The recreation committee just had a falconer who gave a hawk talk. In May, there will be a flower show, and my children always make their own creations," she said.

Town meetings are held at McCathran Hall, a small, octagonal structure that is also the site of birthday parties, weddings, and orchestral and choral concerts.

Lehman was 10 in 1966 when her schoolteacher parents bought one of the peaked cottages in Washington Grove. The circa 1885 structure was tiny, just 13 1/2 feet wide, with ceilings 10 feet tall at the highest point. The kitchen was rudimentary, and there was a coal shed outside. Her family remodeled and reconfigured, creating two bedrooms and a bathroom out of an upstairs loft for Lehman and her sister.

"When you first move in, you hurt your head a lot. You learn to accommodate," said Lehman.

Lehman's mother, Betty Knight, continues to live in that cottage. Eventually, she added a living room and a two-car garage, a rarity among the original Washington Grove houses.

"I've just loved it. I tell my girls I hope they carry me out in a box," said Knight, 79.

Both houses and people are close in Washington Grove, she said, and that's among the reasons she has stayed so long.

"What exists here, I don't find in other places. It takes you back in time a little bit," Knight said. "The houses are small and clustered together. You are forced to know your neighbor well."

Although the tents are long gone, Washington Grove still has a bit of the summer-camp feel. The forests contribute to this atmosphere, as does the lack of drivable streets. There are no busy thoroughfares, and many of the houses front grassy walkways instead of paved streets.

"Walking is a key characteristic of Washington Grove. It's laid out to be pedestrian friendly. Every other street is a walkway," Compton said.

Winkler said the walkways and greenery attracted her when she and her family were house-hunting. "We parked the car and were walking down Grove Avenue. We weren't even sure we should be walking on it. There was a sign that said something about no wheeled vehicles, and here I'm pushing my son's stroller. I said, 'Can we do this?' "

Strollers were and are permitted, and Winkler said she still loves living where she does.

Roads are designed to keep traffic slow -- the speed limit is 15 miles per hour -- and at a minimum.

"The [paved] streets are 16 feet wide. It's a hallmark of the town. The cars share the streets with people and dogs," Compton said.

That can lead to occasional clashes with modern suburban life. Moving vans can be a problem, for instance, and trash removal requires some ingenuity.

"We're hoping to get rid of the monster trucks," Lehman said. "He'll back in and sit, and they run in and collect and pull out. It's too hard to maneuver in here."

Living in a forest requires its share of adaptation. A tree committee monitors the health of all the town hardwoods, and homeowners think twice about removing what in all likelihood was on their property long before they arrived.

"Cut down a tree in Washington Grove, and people are aghast," Compton said.

Another prerequisite for living happily in Washington Grove is the understanding that you will co-exist with abundant wildlife. Deer, in particular, will have a say in your gardening plans.

"You won't see too many tulips here. You'll see the green, but the minute they flower, they're gone," Lehman said.

Her mother continues to experiment with what she plants.

"They ate my hydrangeas last summer, but they don't like daffodils," Knight said.

A more substantial threat to the Washington Grove lifestyle is encroaching development. Over the years, the town has responded to this possibility by annexing nearby property. Washington Grove is now examining the purchase of 12 undeveloped acres across from one of its boundary streets so the land can be maintained in its current state.

"Washington Grove preceded all the development around us. We're now surrounded by infill development with the exception of this property. This is the last remaining adjacent property. Our argument is that we deserve to be protected," Compton said.

Another issue is what residents choose to do to their homes. Although the town is on the National Register of Historic Places, homeowners have quite a bit of leeway.

"As the issue of mansionization comes up, we're looking to see if a zoning ordinance can protect the little houses, [but] do you want someone to tell you you can't take a piece of gingerbread off your house?" Lehman said.

Compton agreed. "Most believe that the character of the town is contributed to by the old-style homes, [but] to impose a standard has proven to be controversial. We're trying to deal with it."

Still, Washington Grove won't change much, Compton said.

"People move to Washington Grove because they like it the way it is, a mish-mash of property in a terrific location."

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