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Koppel, Neighbors War Over Estates

Washington Post

On the air, he has played the delicate role of referee to Israelis and Palestinians. In the midst of South Africa’s clash over apartheid, he brought Foreign Minister R.F. Botha and Archbishop Desmond Tutu into U.S. homes on the same television broadcast.

But at home in Potomac, Md., where he is building a massive riverfront estate on 16 acres of cattle pasture, Ted Koppel is at war with his neighbors.

The anchor of ABC’s “Nightline” and his wife are entering the fifth year of a ferocious land dispute that is headed for court in Montgomery County. The Koppels contend in a lawsuit that their neighbors have ignored an agreement to cap the size of their houses at 10,000 square feet, a tad larger than George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

“ ‘Don’t build a monster McMansion’ -- that’s the essence of what it is,” said lawyer Thomas D. Murphy, who represents Koppel, 62, and his wife, Grace Anne Dorney, 63.

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The neighbors have counter-sued, saying the Koppels have some nerve policing the size of other houses while they are building their own Taj Mahal. In interviews, the neighbors add that the Koppels have chosen a strange setting to wage war against ostentation.

About 16 miles northwest of Washington, Potomac is one of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs, where road signs warn drivers to yield to horseback riders. It is also emblematic of America’s recent obsession with the megahouse. Two-thirds of the area’s homes are leviathans, boasting nine rooms or more (not including bathrooms).

The houses that line Ardnave Place, the narrow incline that leads to the Koppels’ sprawling property, are in various stages of construction. But residents who have moved in say their homes are no different than scores of other mansions in surrounding communities.

“The whole thing is ridiculous,” said Diane Patronas, who bought land near the Koppels in 1998. She declined to be interviewed at length because she didn’t want to fuel the dispute but added, “Frankly, I can’t believe a mature adult would do this.”

In the countersuit, the developers of the neighboring properties say that every home in the subdivision is under the 10,000-square-foot threshold except one: the Koppels’. They allege that the Koppel manse is expected to top 14,000 square feet. Koppel’s attorney called that claim “completely fabricated” and said that the house would be 9,700 square feet.

What no one can contest is that 10 years ago, the Koppels obtained an unusual, contractual right to demand that their neighbors live within these size constraints.

The limit dates to 1993, when the Koppels spotted the 44-acre cattle farm on a list of properties for sale by the Resolution Trust Corporation, the agency that was overseeing the government bailout of the savings and loan industry.

Working under the corporate name Kodor Associates, the couple paid $2.7 million for 16 acres of the site overlooking the Potomac River. The Livingston Family Limited Partnership bought the rest, planning to put 14 houses there.

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As part of the agreement with the Koppels, the Livingston group pledged to restrict those houses to 10,000 square feet. The arrangement, Murphy said, was cemented in covenants only after the Koppels agreed to significantly increase their purchase price.

“That was very important for [the Koppels], because they were concerned that McMansions would overwhelm the ground, and they were willing to pay a steep price to avoid that from happening,” Murphy said.

But five years later, when builders started grading the lots along Ardnave Place, the Koppels began worrying that the houses next door were going to be much larger than promised.

In letters to builder Mitchell, Best & Visnic, Grace Dorney pleaded for some proof that the houses would not exceed the 10,000-square-foot limit.

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“We want to have good relations with you, with Livingston Partners, and with all the new neighbors,” Dorney wrote in October 1998. “One of the components of this relationship is a commitment to the covenants which we and Livingston Partners executed to protect our property.”

In their court filings, the Koppels say they got the runaround from the builder and were forced to sue when several mammoth houses began to rise.

The attorney for Livingston Partnership, Glenn Etelson, would not comment on the case, citing a law-firm policy. But court papers indicate that the dispute has focused on one issue: how to measure the houses.

Judges on Maryland’s mid-level appeals court issued a preliminary ruling that included basements in the measurement but dismissed several of the Koppels’ claims, determining that only two houses may exceed the size threshold. Those cases have been returned to Montgomery County for trial.

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For several of those who bought the houses in question, and inherited the accompanying legal battle, the fight with the Koppels has been a whopping headache.

Shirley Ballard Miller, who bought a lot near the Koppels in 1998, said her home was one of those cleared by the appellate court, but not before the Koppels’ attorneys crawled around her house with tape measures.

“We were all dumbfounded,” Miller said of the dispute. “No one understood what it was about. Why anyone would care so much about every little inch.”

Miller said she and other neighbors were required to spend hours in depositions, seated across from Dorney and her attorneys, answering questions about what she knew and when she knew it.

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“It was all very annoying,” she said, “But I tried not to let it bother me.”

The Koppels referred calls requesting comment to Murphy, who said the reason for all the antagonism is not that the English-born news anchor, the son of a tire-factory owner, wanted the biggest house on the block.

In fact, Murphy said, when the Koppel home is completed, it will be “built into the land” and measure well under the 10,000-square-foot limit. A neighboring barn and chicken house will be preserved. And the house, which sits beyond an earthen berm, will not be visible from the approaching road.

All that said, Murphy agreed, the motivations driving the dispute -- which after years of litigation must itself have grown to be quite costly -- are probably difficult for the average person to grasp.

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“We’re talking about a strata that is so different from the vast majority of the population,” he said. “Everyone here has the dollars and cents to do all of this.”

And the reason the Koppels do it, he said, is because they had a vision for the land where they wanted to live and paid a premium for the right to see that vision fulfilled.

Not part of that picture, he said, were homes like the one on nearby River Road, which was featured in a recent New York Times article about the hulking homes of the American suburbs. Reading from the news clipping, Murphy gasped at a photo of the 14,000-square-foot, $3.5-million neo-Italian villa, which boasts a master bedroom with a 16-foot barreled ceiling and a kitchen with a 14-foot-long, two-tiered food preparation island that seats eight.

“They didn’t want something like that on this particular piece of land,” Murphy said. “To them, it was just really important to know that the land was being protected and respected.”

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