LOCAL COLOR/Gathering all around
Approximately 25 miles from the nation’s capital, tucked away in 100 acres of woods, lies Washington Grove, Md., a small town with a near-extinct form of government. Every June, residents congregate in 104-year-old McCathran Hall to conduct community business, such as approving the budget and tax rate. The every-voice-counts approach to government, which has survived nearly 70 years, now is helping the 550-resident town preserve its distinct and historic character.
The emphasis on community is rooted in Washington Grove’s past as a Methodist Bible camp for Washingtonians seeking a temporary haven from the city. Beginning in 1873, they traveled by train each year to pitch their tents. Charmed by the area’s tranquility, some decided to reside at the retreat permanently and replaced the tents with houses reflecting the same pitched-roof style. In 1937, the community became a municipality and traded the Camp Meeting Association for what Mayor John Compton describes as a “modified town hall meeting form of government.”
Although Washington Grove has a mayor and city council — all unpaid positions — residents have the power to override council actions at a town meeting, which can be called with a 25-voter petition. “Typically, I try to take actions that are supported,” Compton says. “For controversial issues, I have called a meeting to debate and ask for advice.” The town also has planning authority and zones land independent of Montgomery County.
The relative autonomy allows Washington Grove, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, to maintain its historic qualities. The speed limit, for instance, is 15 miles per hour, and half the roads allow only foot traffic. “The town was set up to be people-friendly, not vehicle-friendly,” Compton says.
But near I-270 and within walking distance of a stop on the commuter train to Washington, the town faces threats to its character. The community recently concluded a four-year battle with a developer who wanted to build closely spaced 300,000-square-foot homes on a field that borders one side of the town. The council and residents coordinated their efforts to preserve 12 acres through the Legacy Open Space Program, which aims to restrict development on historic and scenic properties. Next they plan to save a one-lane bridge that the county wants to replace with a taller, wider and more modern version, a move that Compton says will detract from the aesthetics and encourage more traffic.
Internal pressures for modernization have become an issue, as well. Compton currently is trying to decide how much control the town should have over renovations and additions to the community’s existing homes, many of which are small and lack fences. “It’s a very open place with the look and feel and quality of a community,” Compton says. “But modern living requires more house, and the challenge is to retain the overall relationship of the structures to the trees and surroundings.” Compton is gathering input from residents to gauge what restrictions are appropriate.
Despite the ongoing conflicts with modernization, the town hall meeting remains intact. At this year’s June 11 gathering, 70 residents approved the $450,000 budget for the year, and Compton recognized the community’s numerous volunteers, including Shelley Winkler, who received the first Mayor’s Distinguished Service Award for her contribution to the Legacy Open Space negotiations.
Like the community’s original inhabitants, Compton says most people stay because it’s “tranquil and a real community. We’re fortunate that it’s a very special location.”