The first two pages of the glossy brochure for Lake Ridge show three young people sitting on the side of a green river bank, fishing in a clear, placid water.
The opening text proclaims Lake Ridge, bordering on the Occoquan Reservoir in Prince William County, a "nature lover's paradise." It adds that "Special care has been taken in planning the neighborhoods and amenities to preserve the natural environment. One thousand acres have been dedicated for parkland . . . . "
Now, 15 acres of wooded area in the midst of these planned neighborhoods has become the subject of hot dispute between homeowners there and the developer of the community.
The homeowners say they were told by sales representives when they bought that the area would remain parkland forever. Some, in fact, say they were willing to pay thousands of dollars more for property next to the woods.
But, recently, they became aware that the area is to be developed. Most of the trees are to be cleared and construction of 150 garden condominium apartments is scheduled to begin in September. This, the area homeowners say, will change the quality of their community and reduce their property values significantly.
"We were lied to," said homeowner Jennette Newlen. "We don't have a whole lot in writing, but we were all told the same thing." She said an agent working for the builder walked with her and her husband over the acreage, saying it would all be parkland.
Edward R. Carr, builder of most of the houses around the wooded area, said that sales agents knew of the development plans and were instructed to represent it properly. He has since talked with all the sales people, who say they make accurate representations, he said.
"This is not a problem that is not unknown to builders. All kinds of charges fly around," Carr said. "If they want to make claims of misrepresentation, we will fight it as best we can." If buyers were treated unfairly, the builder will make reparations, Carr said, "but they are going to have to prove it."
Weaver Brothers, the developer of the community, and Carr say the tract was slated for development years before the now-disgruntled owners bought, and a Prince William official confirms that the county approved development of the site in 1977.
A Weaver Brothers representative said he had sympathy for the homeowners but also said there is no reason that they should not have known that the area was planned for development.
"Lake Ridge has had a visitors center for over 10 years with the plans there," said Kenneth Thompson, senior vice president of the development firm.
The homeowners say they never saw any plans that showed development on the site. A package of detailed information sheets and a map of the entire Lake Ridge community available at the visitors center last weekend made no mention of the planned garden apartments.
Lake Ridge is a 3,500-acre planned community in Prince William County consisting of 17 cluster neighborhoods designed by various builders. The homeowners involved in the dispute are mainly in three of the communities and bought their new town houses and single-family homes during the past three years.
The angry and frustrated middle- and upper-middle-income homeowners have vowed to fight the development and are considering legal action against the builders who, they charge, misled them. They have formed the Citizens for the Protection of the Lake Ridge Environment and say they have collected 550 signatures from Lake Ridge residents on a petition to prevent the development.
"We bought in good faith. Why can't they build in good faith," said Larry Edwards, who bought a house two years ago.
On two recent sweltering summer weekends, about 20 of the owners took to the suburban streets around the Lake Ridge Visitors Center with protest signs and flyers to hand to passing drivers. "Keep Lake Ridge Green," "Ask Us Before You Buy" and "No Cheap Condos," read some of the signs.
Some owners expressed concern that the condos to be built will sell in the $52,000-to-$74,000 range, next to the houses they bought for between $80,000 and $150,000.
Thompson accused the owners of taking an "I-got-mine" attitude and of wanting to keep others out. The developer has tried to accommodate owners, however, he said, and has reduced the number of planned units from 170 to 150.
As the developer of the planned community, Weaver Brothers sells parcels of land to builders, who then design, sell and construct the houses. Sales personnel would work for the builders of the community, not the developer, Thompson said.
What the homeowners actually were told by sales representatives will be difficult to prove--and this probably would not make a difference anyway on the developer's right to build as planned. Another builder, Calibre of Virginia, is to build the 150 condos, Thompson said.
Some of the homeowners complain that the county will do nothing about the development itself, but a representative of the county government says the developers are well within their rights and it is out of the county's hands.
The county approved development of the site about eight years ago, said Edward Luckett, deputy director of the Department of Development Administration. There is a strip of flood plain 60 to 200 feet wide between existing houses and the planned condos that will remain as it is, and the condos have been designed to keep as much buffer as possible there, he said.
"They are not keeping it wooded, but it is within the county's parameters," Luckett said. "As a whole, Lake Ridge has been well within its promises to the board."
The owners' recourse then becomes a private matter between the individuals and those who represented the sellers, he said.
The owners, many of them in the military, say they plan to take them to court, but they also are exploring other lines of attack.
Military families have recourse through an Armed Forces housing referral service, for example, one owner said. Military families can put their complaints in writing, and these then become part of a record that is shown to other military personnel coming to the area, so they will know of others' dissatisfaction with a particular builder, she explained.
And if the developer finally does bring the bulldozers in in September, some of the owners say they will chain themselves to trees in the woods, "where quiet hours can be spent reflecting, relaxing, enjoying the wonders of nature," to quote from the Lake Ridge brochures.