instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Bordering on Madness: An American Land Use Tale (2d ed.)

Bordering on Madness explores the rage and fear land use disputes generate. The emotions underlying property fights are primitive, rooted in the belief that protection of property means survival. Even a reasonable proposal is experienced as a deadly threat if it seems likely to alter that most personal landscape, the home.

As the land use fight in Bordering on Madness ripens, the homeowners and university become combatants. The opposition becomes the enemy, depersonalized and reprehensible. Nevertheless, as is so often the case, the struggle is a sinewy exercise in democracy, with unexpected and regular displays of intelligence and conscience.


The scene that follows is from one of the citizen's associations meetings early in the book. Lucas Robmann, President of Chesapeake Commons Citizen's Association, is running the meeting. The university representative attempting to present a plan is Diego Canton. Diego is the narrative voice in the book:

As we entered the meeting room, I turned to Robmann. "I’ll be taking over from here." I seated myself in a chair facing the audience, cleared my throat and began. "One of our finest programs, the Livingston School of Business, is fragmented into several buildings; its accreditation is in jeopardy; we have senior faculty forced to share offices; our research library...."

"None of us care about your problems, Canton. We want to know where you plan to put this building, Lot 7 or on the greenbelt?" Vice president Arthur Yahling was up again, his anger barely masked.

I dodged. "Design for a facility of this type takes time." I searched for the phrases Amos had used earlier in the day and drew a blank. "Tonight is a time to hear from you and I am hoping your suggestions...." I stopped.

Phyllis Elkind was standing quite straight, squaring her five foot frame to me. It was a dignified pose. Unlike many of her female counterparts in the community, Phyllis carried a trim leather valise rather than a purse. She set it down on her chair, rising before being noticed by Robmann. She checked her graying and recently coiffed hair, passing her hand lightly over her temple, and then waited. Her right to the floor was unquestioned. Phyllis had lived in Chesapeake Commons the longest, purchasing her home in 1961 and was accorded respect for that distinction.

"I am tired, Mr. Diego Canton, tired of being knocked around by your university." Phyllis stared at me. I sat, motionless. "I know what you are thinking, Diego. You don’t fool me, Mr. Pokerface! Lucas has said you’re a decent fellow -- but this project!"

She waited for a moment before continuing. "You sit there, judging us. Did you ever stop and ask yourself what it would feel like to be one of us?" This was a more frontal attack than I had expected and I paid close attention.

"Just when we get used to things, there’s something new; some new sports facility, more noise, more students who park in front of our homes, litter our streets ... and now, you expect us to accept some vast, sprawling building–on the greenbelt? I think not!" Phyllis’s comments were followed by applause and a variety of angry comments. Several residents stood, pointing at me, and the chanting began:

"Leave our land alone!"
"Leave our land alone!"
"Leave our land alone!"

I sat in silence as the demonstration continued. Even if I had been able to think of something meaningful to say, there was no way to be heard.

Lucas Robmann waited several minutes, smacked his gavel on the plastic surface of the table, and there was quiet.

I continued. "There are some detailed concept drawings and massing sketches to give you a sense of this facility. Mrs. Elkind is correct. It is planned for the east end of the greenbelt. As you can see, we will use plantings to shelter adjacent properties. As to condition five in Mr. Foggarty’s letter, let me be clear: Lot 7 is not part of the discussion. The location for this facility is fixed. The design, however, is certainly open for discussion. You are welcome to come up and take a look at it."

Arthur Yahling grabbed one of the renderings that displayed the existing building footprints on Summerfield Avenue and looked at it closely. "This little block of land, right here, sketched in gray, this is where my house is." Yahling’s voice was rising now. "You’ll never build this monstrosity, I can promise you that. You take your little water¬colors and go back to the university and come back when you’re ready to talk to us about a reasonable plan. We gave you Lot 7 and you’ve picked the wrong site -- the wrong community." He was shaking.

"Hold on, Arthur. No one gave Lot 7 to anyone. Saxton University Park is part of this association and Lot 7 is not up for discussion." It was Ben Woodbridge. "I would be curious to know who told Mr. Foggarty that Lot 7 was a viable site. Certainly no one on this side of the room. I’ve got news for you, Arthur -- Lot 7 is in the heart of my community, and SU Park is not going to be the site of this center. No way." More applause, this time from the SU Park group. That comment prompted a second demonstration, loud and ferocious.

Emmet Carstairs was standing on a chair, his fist raised, screaming, "No to Saxton Lies! No to Saxton Lies!" He wobbled at one point and was propped up by his wife.

I drifted off to the side of the room and found Amos who looped his right arm across my back. Quietly, he told me to back off and behold the Chesapeake Commons Citizens Association in all its glory.

Comments on Bordering On Madness:

"Drawn from his real-life experience, Popper has skillfully woven a tale that captures the essence of community conflict in an emotionally-charged zoning war over university development. A must-read for lawyers and other professionals who labor in the trenches of building permits, zoning and land-use planning. If you like the writings of John Grisham, you will love this land use battle."

--Maureen Dwyer, Managing Partner, DC Office Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

"This neatly paced page turner turns a subject -- zoning and land use regulations -- not often thought of as grist for a mystery, into must reading for those who deal with their neighbors -- and we all have them! For land use attorneys, it should make a wonderful gift for clients -- for community groups, it's a must read for their book clubs. Here's to a great read!"
--D. Barlow Burke, author, Understanding the Law of Zoning and Land Use Controls