Greenbriar: Chantilly's Levitt town

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 4, 2011; 11:40 AM

The minute Shelly and Trey Lackey drove into Chantilly's Greenbriar neighborhood 11 years ago, she thought, "Oh my goodness, I've been here before!" But "here" actually had been another Levitt and Sons community, in Willingboro, N.J.

The Cape Cod they were considering - and eventually bought -was identical to Shelly's childhood home. "The house across the street was the same-style rambler, too," she said.

The deja vu moment was so strong that when the couple faced a locked house with a no-show real estate agent, Shelley accurately sketched its floor plan for Trey.

Greenbriar, where all street names start with a P or an M, is a planned community of more than 1,900 single-family homes, most built by Levitt in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Most residents are within walking distance of at least one of the community's four schools and Rocky Run Stream Valley Park. Greenbriar Town Center, the Chantilly library and ball fields are also walking distance for many.

Volunteerism, and a few shenanigans, among original owners - dubbed the Greenbriar Pioneers -shaped today's community. First-person accounts are in a hard-bound history, "The Way It Was," published by the civic association in 2006.

For example, part of the gravel path along Rocky Run, which meanders for two miles through Greenbriar, happened by stealth. When a bulldozer began cutting a swath for the trail, all the operator knew was that he was supposed to keep the orange markers to his right, unaware the markers had been moved in the middle of the night by lantern-toting residents who didn't want the path abutting their rear property lines.

There are still about two dozen pioneers in the community, including the current president of the civic association, Emerson Cale.

Cale's first volunteer task in the early 1970s was rounding up thousands of gallons of water for circus elephants entertaining the community. He quickly learned to seek help from local entities, in that case the fire department.

Now retired from the Pentagon, Cale is still a hands-on community leader who has helped Greenbriar build relationships with county officials and organizations. When the community sought streetlights several years ago, he recalled "sitting at a lot of kitchen tables getting permission for easements," thereby shortening the process.

By 1967, a reversal of the racial exclusion policies that Levitt applied to its earlier subdivisions led Preston Pierce and his family to be among the first African Americans to move to Greenbriar. They had been living in an apartment in the District. "When our children were ready for school, we began looking for a house," Pierce said. "It was during the early stages of integration in neighborhoods like Columbia [Md.]. I heard Levitt had integrated housing and saw an ad [in The Washington Post] for Greenbriar."

For 37 years, Pierce was the face of Little League in the community. "I started off raking fields," he said, "then was an assistant coach." By the time his two sons were in high school, he was a team manager. He umpired, trained umpires and became District 10 manager, finally hanging up his Little League cap in 2006. The Preston Pierce ball field, dedicated in 2009, is across from Chantilly High. "I've had a great experience in Greenbriar," he said.

Greenbriar's 3,600-square-foot community center was financed and built by residents and local organizations in 1974. Nine hundred families pledged a combined $13,000, and many worked every weekend to pull it together. Today, it is self-supporting.

Pioneer Hal Strickland said, "In the community, there were always people who realized if we didn't do it, it wouldn't get done."

In 1975, Strickland proposed forming the Chantilly Youth Association, still a key community organization. "By bringing youth together in teams, you bring parents together, too," he said. Strickland now is a board member of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

While pioneers faced a sea of muddy red clay as the predominant landscape feature and found chickens from neighboring farms wandering through their yards, today Greenbriar is surrounded by major commuter routes. Shade trees are liberally sprinkled around the ramblers, split-levels, Cape Cods and Colonials. Because the houses lack basements, popular renovations include bumping up or out and converting garages to living spaces.

"If the home is priced right and shows well, it sells right away," said Joe Dettor, a 19-year resident and a real estate agent with Keller Williams. "We have not had a lot of short sales or foreclosures compared to other neighborhoods." There are only 25 rental houses in the community , he said.

There is no homeowners association. "The nice thing about Greenbriar is how people have made these Levitt houses their own," said Anna Nurmi, a piano teacher whose family moved from Arlington in 1992.

Ed Conley, retired from the Air Force, moved to Greenbriar in 1994 because his family needed a one-level house. Since then, he bumped out one bedroom by 12 feet, converted the one-car garage to a storage area and added a two-car garage. His once-L-shaped house is now U-shaped with a welcoming entryway. Some residents have added second stories to their ranch-style houses.

Civic association dues are a voluntary $25 a year, with about a 70 percent participation rate. Dues go toward holiday parties, concerts in the park and other activities open to all.

The pool, which operates as a private club with its own activities and swim team, is open to residents and those beyond Greenbriar but is limited to 600 households. Lackey maintains the waiting list, currently at 40, but some memberships are transferred with house sales and others are privately sold. "The seller dictates the price," she noted, with current buy-in fees hovering around $1,000, plus annual dues of $350.

She suggested that prospective members "do your own legwork" by advertising an interest in joining.

One outlet for those ads and for community, school and county news is the Greenbriar Flyer, the community's free newspaper, published continually since 1967.

Financially independent, the 20-page publication is produced by volunteers. Archived copies are on microfilm in the Chantilly library.

"We're now beginning to see more new young families," said Strickland. The community's history is preserved because "we wanted folks to understand that the things they enjoy today were hard fought for," he said. "There's a lot of pride in being part of the Greenbriar community."

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