Vienna Is Rated a Great Place to Stop -- Permanently

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By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Vienna is the type of town a lot of people drive through.

Maple Avenue, the town's main street, is a congested ribbon of stop-and-go traffic between Interstate 66 and Tysons Corner. Many motorists stop no longer than it takes for a red light to turn green.

In all its 115 years of existence, Vienna has never made the final cut of anyone's list of the best places to live.

So it seemed to come out of nowhere when a national magazine, having duly considered the attributes of more than 1,000 towns across the entire country, ranked Vienna as No. 4. The only other town in the Washington area to make it into Money magazine's top 25 best places to live was Gaithersburg, which finished 17th.

"Much of bustling Fairfax County feels like it was built last week," Money said in a sly dig at Vienna's neighbors. "Not Vienna, a much prized piece of ground in the Civil War."

After an initial expression of surprise, many residents said yesterday that they understood why Vienna's virtues were finally being recognized. Almost no one mentioned the quantifiable factors the magazine used, including education levels, crime rates, housing affordability and taxes.

Instead, many painted a portrait of Vienna as an old-fashioned slice of Norman Rockwell's America, with holiday parades, police officers who teach children how to ride bicycles, and neighbors who have known each other most of their lives. In a way, they spoke of a life many people think is impossible in the bustle of the Washington suburbs.

"I've been all over, but I keep coming back," said Marty Volk, 43. Five years ago, he bought the Vienna Inn, whose chili dogs have made it a town institution. "I love it here. It's got a big family feeling."

Mayor Jane Seeman said that a reporter from Money had stopped by her office three weeks ago and told her Vienna was in the running and that she had heard rumors that a photographer was seen around town.

One thing about Vienna, Seeman said: There's a there there.

"We've known all along that Vienna is a great place to live," she said. "When you drive around the urban area of Tysons or Fairfax, whatever; when you drive into Vienna, you know you're here. It has a true identity. People like that."

Actually, much of what passes for Vienna is not Vienna. Two other Zip codes share Vienna addresses with the town of about 14,850. The Money article included the surrounding area, with a population of 61,700.

Lori Nibley, 43, grew up in Reston but has lived for 13 years on the outskirts of Vienna, her husband's home town. She said she comes to the town center to shop.

"It's real middle America," she said after lunch at the Vienna Inn. "It doesn't have McMansions. It doesn't have extremely poor. And people are always nice. Some guy almost ran me over and said, 'I'm sorry.' Most other places, people would consider it my fault. Vienna is part of my bubble, my cocoon."

Among the factors that Money considered in its rankings was the crime rate. In Vienna, personal and property crimes were about half the national average.

Although Fairfax County police can provide backup, the Vienna police force has five or six officers patrolling at any given time. The last killing was in 1995 during a gas station robbery. Among the more common problems are vandalism and credit cards lifted from people who leave their purses or wallets in grocery carts.

A photo on the wall at police headquarters shows an officer helping a boy sit on the officer's police motorcycle, which has balloons tied to the rear. Police also hold an annual bicycle rodeo to teach children how to ride their bikes.

"This town believes it's a small town in a big community," said Officer Thomas T. Bartt III, a 20-year veteran who was recently named officer of the year by the local American Legion post. "They want personal service, whether it's the service that comes from individual stores or better police protection."

In addition to the big chains, Vienna has a significant number of small, individually owned stores. Among them are a hardware store, a small toy shop and at least two clock repairers.

"You can get anything you want done, whether it's bike repair or having your lawn mower fixed, without having to go to the mall," said Don Sobel, who has run the Clock Shop of Vienna for almost 32 years.

Like the towns around it, Vienna is starting to change. There are no vacant lots in town for new developments, and town zoning regulations permit no more than 25 percent of a lot to be covered by a house, patio and driveway. As a result, many owners of post-World War II ramblers are building additions or tearing down the houses to build new structures.

With the cost of a tear-down running $500,000 or more, many people who grew up in Vienna can no longer afford to return there to live, said Volk, of the Vienna Inn.

So he was not entirely thrilled with the attention that came with the Money magazine ranking.

"It will make property values go up even more," he said in consternation.

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