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Washington, D.C.

Zoning changes sound dull? Look again, people can kill over them.

It’s the plot of a new novel by American University law professor Andy Popper, but based on a 1995 attempted pipe bombing of AU’s then new law school on Mass Avenue in DC, as wealthy residents of adjoining areas (AU Park, Spring Valley, and Wesley Heights) were up in arms over 1000 students flocking to the neighborhood.


Popper, above, showing me last week where on a November day that year someone placed a propane canister underneath the gas meter at four in the morning, lit it so that the flame was directly against the gas line, then took off. The flame burned through the plastic at the bottom of the meter and ignited the gas. The fire that began initially raced up the side of the building but because of safety mechanisms backed down under the ground and burned under the sidewalk for over an hour.

The FBI investigated for over a year without success.

Earlier that fall someone took a 22 gauge rifle and shot out ten windows on the fourth floor. The university president got a written death threat telling him that the gas line episode was no accident and that he’d better stop the building. (It went ahead with no further incident.)

Popper, who has been on the faculty for 30 years and chaired the design committee for the new law school, has ratcheted up the drama in his novel: tire slashings, tear gas, arson, mutilation of a dead body to make it look like the work of the building donor, and two murders. He even has the university spokesman in a steamy scene falling in love with the donor’s daughter.


Popper worked closely with Pillsbury’s Maureen Dwyer on the AU building legal issues, and says his lesson is this: Lawyers may battle about such seemingly mundane issues as technical non-compliance with zoning rules, hours of operation, or lack of sufficient parking. But deep down, communities are terrified of change, and that poisons their willingness to consider the often legitimate and noble purposes of development. Good guys are often made into bad guys and vice versa.

Bordering on Madness: An American Land Use Tale, is available at Amazon.

Only problem: if Popper’s interested in selling movie rights, two murders may not be enough.