In Great Oak Square, the roots go way back

By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 19, 2010; 7:18 AM

Great Oak Square, a community of 64 two- and three-level townhouses just off Annandale Road, is named for the magnificent old oak tree that stands at its hub. When the infill development was built in the early 1980s, great care was taken not to disturb the tree, which towers commandingly over the neighborhood's central circle.

The community has taken such good care of the tree, which is believed to be more than 200 years old, that the Fairfax County Tree Commission awarded the Friends of Trees Award to the Great Oak Square Homeowners Association in 1996 for "outstanding contribution toward the conservation of trees in Fairfax County."

Homeowners association treasurer and longtime resident Larry Hines is the proud keeper of the plaque. "That was probably a small tree at the time George Washington surveyed this area," he said. The annual association budget includes a line item for general tree maintenance in the common areas of the property, which includes several hundred dollars a year for the great oak. "That includes spraying the tree for insects and feeding it," Hines said.

Though most residents are at least somewhat proud of the tree, they chose the neighborhood for its relatively reasonable commute and home prices. "They are well-maintained brick and siding homes which are selling at prices ranging from $350,000 to $400,000," said real estate agent Brian Block. "The nicest thing about this neighborhood is that residents can walk to Falls Church City. And it's 11/2 miles to East Falls Church Metro," added Block.

The president of the homeowners association, Randy Hill, says location is one of the main reasons he has stayed in the community for more than 18 years. "We often discussed moving to a larger or detached home, but the discussion always came back to - why move when we've got such a great place now?" Hill said.

"Access to the village-like shops and Farmers Market in Falls Church City, the good Fairfax County schools . . . all conspired to keep us right where we are," he said.

Fifteen of the townhouses, built by Ryan Homes, are just two stories with no basement - about 1,250 square feet of living space. The other 49 homes are the same style, but with basements. All of the houses have three bedrooms and 21/2 bathrooms. The two-level model originally sold for $76,000, and the three-level for $86,000.

Association dues cost each resident just $60 per month and cover common-area landscaping, an annual cookout, streetlights, snow removal and road maintenance. The neighborhood has to maintain its own streets starting from the central circle off which the three cul-de-sacs of the neighborhood branch.

The most notable improvement to the neighborhood's streets in recent years was the addition of speed bumps to slow traffic. Though the streets are short, the hill down Great Oak Court tempts drivers to build up speed. Hines recounts an incident in 2005 in which a teenage driver roared down into the cul-de-sac and totaled Hines's car.

"Coming down the hill, you have to slow down now," said resident Jane Hoffman, who bought her home new in 1982. "People still jazz up to them," she said of the bumps, "but then they slow down and go over."

At Great Oak Square's annual neighborhood-night-out picnic, the local police officers who stop by to say hello say they hardly ever get to see the neighborhood, according to Hines. "This is a fairly crime-free area," he said.

That may be partly because the 64 townhouses are built on just three cul-de-sacs, with all of the homes facing one another and only one way in and out of the neighborhood. There are two assigned perpendicular parking spots in front of each house.

Residents say they keep an eye out for their neighbors. "I'm the unofficial neighborhood watch. I walk around all the time," Hoffman said, adding: "I walk my dogs all around here." The total distance of the community's three streets is less than a third of a mile, making it perfect for walking multiple out-and-back laps.

Quite a few neighbors regularly walk their dogs, so there are people passing one another on the sidewalk most of the time, residents say. "A lot of people are aware of who lives here and what cars they drive," Hines said.

Tom Broughan recently walked his two pugs on a sunny weekend afternoon. The dogs were a major reason he and his wife moved to the development earlier this year. "We wanted somewhere with a yard for our dogs, more than one bedroom, in a neighborhood versus super-urban, and at a reasonable price," he said.

The couple started looking in North Arlington, "which made it more difficult because it was too expensive," he said. When they decided to cast the net a little wider, they found Great Oak Square. "It seemed to have most of what we wanted at the price we wanted," Broughan said.

The commute to McPherson Square in downtown Washington takes 30 to 60 minutes, depending on Metro delays, Broughan says. Most residents drive or take the bus to the East Falls Church Metro station.

Another benefit of the neighborhood is the diverse mixture of people, who range in age from toddlers to people in their 80s, residents say. "We have a great diversity of ethnic groups. People are from all different parts of the world," Hines said.

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