The leafy neighborhood was platted first in 1894 as a 14.5-acre subdivision called Otterbourne. Several large homes quickly rose on what was then Percy Street, named for the loser in the 1388 Battle of Otterbourne that pitted Englishman Henry Percy against the Scots in a border dispute.
Most of Otterbourne remained undeveloped until the 19205, when a rash of building occurred. In 1923, a new house rose at 3704 Thornapple St., the name that replaced Percy in the new Section 5 of Chevy Chase. The house—one of 225 now within the section, was a modest dwelling with 1,700 square feet of living space on a 42 1/2-foot-wide lot.
For many decades, peace reigned on the stretch of Thornapple extending from Connecticut Avenue to Brookville Road. But the neighborhood civility has now been shattered, to the surprise and dismay of residents. Perhaps, with some knowledge of history and botany, the discord that has roiled the tree-lined street could have been foreseen. It wasn’t just that Percy lost the battle; the thorn apple is a poisonous herb also referred to as the devil’s apple, devil’s trumpet and stinkweed. The plant is a narcotic, sometimes used medicinally, but its effects can be fatal. In olde England, the suspicious believed that it attracted witches. To grow it in one’s garden was considered unlucky.
Little wonder, then, that the atmosphere on Thornapple Street is poisonous. A dispute over a house either rebuilt or built anew at 3704, depending on which version is believed, deeply divides the neighborhood. The dispute has filled hundreds of pages of transcript, involved the county’s embattled Department of Permitting Services (DPS) in yet another building imbroglio, consumed many hours before the Montgomery County Board of Appeals, and engaged attorneys and the media. Total legal fees for both sides have risen so far to $62,000, according to the protagonists.
Meanwhile, the house on Thornapple stands unfinished, its sides wrapped in Tyvek, the work halted by county order, its owners directed to move it or tear it down.
Two securities lawyers, Marc and Marianne Duffy, say they bought the house not knowing that its walls were so rotten they needed replacement. Arrayed against them are several Thornapple neighbors with formidable credentials: In the house next door are New Yorker writer Jane Mayer and her husband, Bill Hamilton, a high-ranking Washington Post editor. Next to them are former ABC News reporter Jackie Iudd, now a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, and her husband Michael Shulman, a high-tech entrepreneur and former Village Council member. Yet another door down are special education lawyer Michael J. Eig, grandson of the late developer Samuel Eig, for whom a highway is named, and his historic preservationist wife, Emily Hotaling Eig. Two doors up from the disputed house, high-powered real estate agent Kristin Gerlach also stands opposed.
The opponents maintain there is no story other than a zoning violation, which, if left to stand, could set a dangerous precedent. The Duffys portray themselves as victims of condescending neighbors and of county permitting officials who gave them bad advice. Both sides are aggrieved and indignant, and wish the whole thing had never happened. Except that it did. Both sides say it’s not personal, though it is.
Emily Eig expresses a sentiment shared by all when she says, simply, “I can’t believe this is happening.”