Behind the gates, a quiet escape


Dawn on a lake in the Lake of the Woods. (Ann Cameron Siegal FTWP/PHOTO BY ANN CAMERON SIEGAL FTWP)
December 15, 2011

Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe Lake of the Woods, a heavily wooded, water-oriented, gated community in Orange County’s Locust Grove, halfway between Fredericksburg and Culpeper on Route 3.

For Diane MacDonald, “it’s like living in a campground with a house.” MacDonald, an 18-year resident, meditates as she takes solitary walks along the community’s narrow, winding, shaded lanes.

For Bob and Sally Shope, eating Sunday brunch or dinner at the community’s bustling clubhouse, with its panoramic water view, and participating in several of the 50 clubs is just the lifestyle they were seeking when they moved from North Carolina in 2009. With a batch of grandchildren and great-grandchildren living nearby, Bob said, “this is where we will probably spend the rest of our lives.”

Speed limits of 15 and 25 mph reflect the slower pace of life found there, in contrast to the history of the land, which was in the crossfire of the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War. Earlier, in Colonial days, the region was home to Germanna, a settlement of German immigrants founded by former Virginia Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who needed workers for his nearby iron mines. Gold mining thrived nearby in the early 19th century.

Lake of the Woods began in the late 1960s as a leisure-oriented getaway for weekend and seasonal use. The developers chose the site because of its deep natural valleys, ideal for creating stream-fed lakes once dams were built.

Jeff Flynn bought one of the first undeveloped lots in 1967 for $4,000 with a seven-year payment plan. That gave him camping privileges in the community and the opportunity to watch the lakes fill.

By 1976, when Flynn’s sons were 8 and 13, the family moved into a lakeside house. “We drove our kids to the front gate to catch the school bus,” said Flynn. “There were no schools within 15 miles then. Now, six school buses come through, and there are three schools close by.”

Flynn said his family took the pleasant setting for granted until one of his son’s college friends exclaimed: “You grew up here? This is the kind of place we go to for vacation!”

There are now 40 miles of paved roads and more than five miles of walking trails within the community. About two-thirds of the residents live there year-round.

Of 3,800 houses in Lake of the Woods, 850 front on one of two man-made lakes. The smaller lake, at 36 acres, is the domain of anglers and paddlers. The larger one — covering 536 acres and stretching almost three miles long, with about 13 miles of shoreline — includes eight sand beaches and two marinas, giving all residents easy access to the water.

Sailing, water-skiing and wave running are allowed, but meandering via pontoon boat or kayak seems to be residents’ primary type of water transportation.

The varied income levels in the community are reflected in the home prices, which range from $120,000 to over $1 million. Included are some original cozy cabins under 900 square feet, plus numerous bungalows, ramblers and contemporaries, many sporting wide decks. Each house seems to reflect a different builder and changing styles. “As you go along, you can see the decades,” said Sue Bielmeier, a two-year resident.

In the off-season, tranquillity rules. The only sounds heard one recent weekend were those of birds and an occasional barking dog. Ducks and swans glided past docks as dawn’s light broke through a fine mist. Streets were occupied mostly by joggers, dog walkers and a few cyclists. “Chipmunks and squirrels are our traffic,” said real estate agent and resident Pat Licata.

There seems to be no divide between full- and part-time residents. When Julia Strickland and her husband, Clark, were looking for a weekend place three years ago, Lake of the Woods met their main criterion: being close enough to their Fairfax home so they’d actually use it. “And we do,” she said, It’s also halfway between home and the University of Virginia, where their son is a student.

“Our first visits were met with baked goods from neighbors on both sides,” said Strickland. “We’ve felt just as welcomed ever since.”

Another part-timer, Columbia resident Donna Thomas, said neighbors keep her family informed of any problems, such as downed trees.

Round-the-clock security, ensuring that only residents and their guests have access to the community and lake, was important to Carey Young, who lives in Baileys Crossroads and recently bought a small cottage in a wooded setting: three bedrooms, two baths and a fireplace for less than $150,000. “It’s a gated community that doesn’t feel gated until you’re several hours away, and then you’re glad it is,” she said.

The homeowners association, composed of a seven-member board and 20 advisory committees, is responsible for operations within the gates. Earlier this year, state officials dropped a long-running demand for the homeowners to upgrade a spillway on an earthen dam along the main lake; the work was estimated to cost $6 million. The dam received a six-year unconditional operational certificate in March.

The homeowners association maintains a reserve fund to help with dam maintenance and to protect members from spikes in the annual assessments. This year’s assessment for all lots is $1,175 and covers services of the community’s volunteer fire department and salaries for a staff of more than 90 people who maintain the lake, streets and common property and tend to snow removal.

Use of the 18-hole golf course, swimming pools, boat slips or equestrian center entails additional fees. For example, a family pool membership costs an extra $170 per year.

Forty-four years after his purchase, Jeff Flynn says he still enjoys the community’s casual ambiance. “It’s not a country club atmosphere,” he said. “There’s a real sense of community here.”

Ann Cameron Siegal is a freelance writer.

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