They had their lavish, two-story mountain hideaways, their weekend parties and their spectacular vistas from atop a 2,220-foot mountain near Front Royal. Life seemed good for the Washingtonians and others who found a woodsy place to unwind on Virginia's High Knob Mountain.
But there has been trouble in paradise.
The mountain community periodically runs out of water. Drought-stressed aquifers have been low this summer, and parts of the water system are old and leaky. When there is no water, there are no showers, no dishwashers and no ice cubes for cocktails. It makes entertaining a challenge.
Health officials, alarmed that High Knob might run out of water entirely, approved the emergency hookup of two new wells last month.
"People would be up for a few days at a time, and they'd have to go to a motel for a shower," said David A. Peterson, a retired CIA intelligence officer and full-time resident who has been a leader in efforts to expand the water supply. "It's a hardship for us."
By "us," he means the likes of past and present High Knob neighbors: former Nevada senator Paul Laxalt, former co-chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee Edward J. Rollins, Republican strategist Mary Matalin and her husband, Democratic consultant James Carville.
At least one homeowner has filed a complaint with state officials, seeking to force the developer to disclose to potential buyers the mountain's water problems. Pressed by state health officials, Warren County imposed a moratorium on new construction in early January, but it was lifted after significant rainfall in mid-March. Since then, construction on a few homes has begun.
Washington lawyer Andrea Lee Negroni and her husband bought a High Knob house "on impulse" for $150,000 last year and thought they had found a bargain. They soon learned otherwise. The couple has had no water on four out of 15 weekend visits, Negroni said.
Negroni filed a complaint with the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation seeking to require real estate brokers to tell potential home buyers that the mountain doesn't have a dependable supply of groundwater--a defect in the land, Negroni contends, that should be disclosed under the state real estate code.
"My position is if a city dweller comes in to buy a three-bedroom home in a community that doesn't have enough water to produce enough to come out of the tap, that's a defect," she said. "No one that I know would buy a home without enough water to flush the toilet or get a drink of water."
Negroni is awaiting word on whether she will get a hearing.
An assistant to Laxalt in his Washington office said the former senator would have no comment on High Knob. Carville said his family's place is on the market after he and Matalin found too many hazards there for their offspring.
"It's not a kids' kind of place," Carville said. "You put them on the front porch, and they fall off."
The president of the High Knob Owners Association, Gregory Caswell, said he is already including information about water outages in welcome kits handed out to home buyers and real estate brokers.
But much goes unsaid. The kits don't say, for instance, that last winter, the association resorted to hiring trucks to haul water up the mountain, an arrangement that had to be dropped when the gravel roads iced up.
High Knob's water problems are sporadic and are exacerbated by an aging water system.
The first warm weekend in May, when many residents simultaneously decided to water the landscaping and one of the mountain's 10 reservoirs sprang a leak, hoses ran dry. Two weeks ago, the system was shut down to repair a leak, and it took two days to recover because reservoirs were depleted from drought, High Knob's water engineer said.
Now spigots are running again, principally because of the emergency hookup of the two new wells, which have been financed by the developer along with fees assessed from homeowners.
"I told them that because of the drought, we'd let them use the wells temporarily," said Virginia Health Department engineer Chuck Conner.
Otherwise the development risked running out of water, he said.
Conner and other engineers say the two new wells, which have tapped additional aquifers, appear to be pumping out enough water to serve existing homes.
But that's not to say problems won't reappear during times of drought and as more building occurs on High Knob, according to health officials and geologists.
Coping with a scarcity of water is a way of life along the spine of the Blue Ridge.
It's the topography, experts say. Mountaintops just don't hold water, and the mountaintops that flank the Shenandoah Valley are impervious granite. When rain falls, it doesn't stick around. A lot of it runs off into streams, and what goes into the ground "travels quickly the heck out of there," said Scott Southworth, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
During dry periods like the one afflicting Northern Virginia through most of June, the ground water "does not get recharged. . . . You just have less and less of it," he said. "It's much like drilling an oil well. It's not going to flow forever, and unless you have something feeding into it, it's just going to dry up."
For that reason, Southworth and others say, High Knob is likely to continue having water problems during droughts, no matter how many wells are drilled. And adding more homes to the development likely will make things worse. Of High Knob's 770 lots, 232 are developed, many at the base of the mountain with suburban-type housing.
The prospect of more houses has upset many homeowners, who object to the fees they already have been charged to build new wells. The new wells assure more development and an endless cycle of water problems for the future, some residents warn.
New homeowners will have to pay $1,000 in one-time water fees.
While the debate rages, High Knob weekenders just may get a more rugged experience than they bargained for.
"I went there for New Year's and had no water," Negroni said. "Everybody was going to the grocery store buying bottled water and putting it in their toilets, among other places."
CAPTION: Resident David A. Peterson says the water outages at High Knob Mountain are a hardship. Last month, health officials approved the emergency hookup of two new wells.
CAPTION: Rural postal carrier Vi Santmyers fills mailboxes on High Knob Mountain near Front Royal, Va. The mountain community struggles with water shortages.