Hickory Farms

Fairfax Subdivision Redefines Affordability

Article from the Washington Post
By Eugene L. Meyer
June 12, 2004

So it has come to this in the region's richest suburban county: A home that residents and real estate agents deem to be "affordable" now sells in the mid-$400,000s.

That makes Hickory Farms, a late 1970s subdivision of 198 rather modest houses, one of which sold recently for $432,400, a real bargain for Fairfax County.

Affordability is high on the list of pluses homeowners list for their community five miles beyond the Capital Beltway.

"Anything below $500,000 these days in the Woodson [High School] district is a very good buy and getting scarcer and scarcer," said Debbie Dogrul, a Long & Foster real estate agent who listed five Hickory Farms homes sold last year.

"It's a very, very charming community and it is affordable," Dogrul said.

Hickory Farms' other qualities are priceless: the friendliness of neighbors, for one, and the common greens that brought them together on a recent Saturday morning to rake, clip, prune and otherwise neaten up their 17 mutual acres of open space.

They do that twice a year, a seasonal ritual in the spring and fall that is followed a week later by the Spring Fling and a fall potluck barbecue. In the winter, children careen down what they call "the sledding hill," also known as the lower common.

Every time a new family moves in, the Hickory Farms Welcome Wagon shows up. When Rob and Sharon Mikula, both in their early thirties, moved into their three-bedroom split-level, neighbors also brought them flowers.

There's an organized Neighborhood Watch, though practically no crime to speak of, and then there's the siding collective, in which 65 households have banded together to get the best price from a contractor who is now working his way through the neighborhood.

At first glance, Hickory Farms looks like many other cookie-cutter subdivisions of vinyl-sided split-levels, Cape Cods and Colonials on quarter-acre lots, all with lawns and gardens regularly mowed and tended. It is so orderly -- so, well, 1950s -- it could be mistaken for the site of the movie "Pleasantville."

"There are a lot of stay-at-home moms," said Stacey Danger, 33, who has three children. "We get together at someone's house once a month and have lunch. Everyone's very friendly. When I was [pregnant] on bed rest 10 weeks last year, people brought meals over to me."

Even the street names evoke images of idyllic old-time rusticity: Still Meadow Road, which connects to Farm House Lane and Cotton Farm Road, bisected by Harvester Farm Lane. Country Square Lane leads to Wheatfield Court, Farm House to Spinning Wheel and Round Top courts.

But it is also a community that increasingly reflects the demographics of 21st-century America, as more Latino and Asian residents have brought a new cultural diversity. Still, families from different backgrounds have always been a part of the community.

Jaime Gutierrez, 56, is a Cuban American who bought his Hickory Farms house 24 years ago. He stayed after his two children grew up and moved out "because of the convenience, the neighbors and the quiet." Today, Gutierrez, an architect, is president of the homeowners association.

The diversity enriches potluck menus. At the spring and fall fests, said Rita Mullin, 51, a resident since 1982, "we encourage those who are from other countries or who have been stationed overseas to bring a favorite dish from another country."

This is a community that has not only a vision, but also a Vision Statement, a key goal of which is "maintaining the physical attractiveness of this neighborhood to ensure that property values continue to increase."

Right now, as in most of the region, there's little concern about whether property values will increase. But to make sure the neighborhood continues to look nice, the Hickory Farms Architectural Control Committee must approve exterior changes, including siding. Generally, neighbors say, this has not resulted in any major disputes.

"It's a pretty active community, but there are no neighborhood Nazis," said Mullin, who is director of development for the Discovery Health Channel. "People like to keep their places up, but they don't go crazy."

Because the homes were all built around the same time, they are aging together, requiring updates at roughly the same time. Thus it came about, as it did with siding, that when concrete driveways needed repaving, neighbors collectively obtained half a dozen bids to get the best price. Forty households signed up.

Nowhere perhaps is this united approach more evident than in the commons, whose careful stewardship won for Hickory Farms the county's environmental excellence award for 2002. Most of the $100 each household pays a year to the community association is spent to keep up the commons.

The land, initially preserved as the developer's trade-off for more housing density, is maintained in large part by the volunteer efforts of residents. Though sections are mowed, there are no playgrounds, tennis or basketball courts. Instead, there are six bird nests. The upper common contains a grove of English Boxwood and Eastern Red Cedar. In the lower common are stands of conifers and a restored natural meadow.

The chief steward, unofficially, is Bob Cosgriff, a two-time community association president proud to show off the area behind his house, a National Wildlife Federation-certified "backyard habitat."

Cosgriff, 56, has lived in Hickory Farms for 25 years and has also written a history of the neighborhood from Colonial times onward. He is a retired naval officer who now works for a small defense contractor in Reston.

He and his wife, Judy, a secondary school math teacher, raised their three children in Hickory Farms. Now, the children are gone, and the Cosgriffs are grandparents and elders in a changing community. "There are a whole lot of young families," he said.

During the spring cleanup, the generational turnover was in evidence. Working alongside longtime residents such as Gutierrez and Cosgriff were Rob Mikula and Marc Fogelman, who moved into the neighborhood two years ago.

Fogelman, an architect, went to nationally ranked Woodson High and wants his son Niko, who is 31/2, "to go through that experience." But at this moment, Niko was busy playing with a wheelbarrow while his dad worked.

"The vines are choking off the tree," Fogelman said, emerging in gloves from a tangle of brush and poison ivy. "The azaleas, roses, dogwood, the holly wouldn't have a chance if we didn't clear those vines out." And so he did.