When Milt Davenport moved to Chantilly 11 years ago, he fancied himself something of a pioneer.
Davenport's neatly trimmed, two-story house in a large subdivision hardly qualifies as roughing it. Still, in the outer western reaches of Fairfax County, Davenport was surrounded by working farms, and property values were a fraction of elsewhere in Northern Virginia. Friends gibed him about living in "the sticks."
Like many who arrived in Chantilly during the first wave of growth several years ago, Davenport, who works for a bank in the District, wasn't looking for a community. He was looking to get it away from it all.
"The idea was that I worked in the city, and lived in the country," Davenport said.
That illusion is gone. Chantilly has been swept by the tide of residential and commercial development that is transforming all of western Fairfax County. As residents face the problems and opportunities of growth, what was once a diffuse, rough-hewn place is emerging as a proud community with an identity of its own.
Chantilly is not a legally defined jurisdiction, and its boundaries differ depending on whom you ask. Most say Chantilly begins a few miles west of Fairfax City and the Fair Oaks Mall and extends to the border of Loudoun County. On clear days, the Blue Ridge Mountains can be seen in the distance.
To the north, it spreads toward Herndon and booming Washington Dulles International Airport; to the south lies Centreville. Defined broadly, Chantilly has about 27,000 residents, according to county officials.
Chantilly is a place where exuberant young families are moving into first homes of their own, although often it's a town house rather than the house of their dreams. There are still many open fields in Chantilly, but most of them are owned by developers waiting to build, and farm tractors have been replaced by construction bulldozers. Community life takes place at the local schools, as parents flock to applaud the achievements of their children on soccer fields and musical stages.
Chantilly is also a place of anxiety. People worry about the pace at which their roads are clogging, their classrooms bursting and their open spaces disappearing.
"People feel that something has been taken away from them," said Beatrice Garcia, president of the Brookfield Homeowners Association, who, after 14 years in the community, is a relative old-timer by Chantilly standards. "They feel that growth has diminished the quality of life."
This wariness -- the tension between the excitement of change versus the fear that growth may be out of control -- shades life in Chantilly for long-time residents and newcomers alike.
Virginia's original Chantilly was in Westmoreland County, when 18th century British settler Richard Henry Lee named his plantation after the French villa near Paris where he was educated, historian Eleanor Lee Templeton has written. When Lee's daughter Henrietta moved to Northern Virginia, she named her estate after her childhood home. In September 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed at the Battle of Chantilly.
Chantilly today brims with the energy and expectations of young families, typified by a newly formed group of friends in Winding Brook. Every weekday afternoon at 1:30, the "Baby Brigade" -- a group of a half-dozen mothers pushing infants in strollers -- cruises the neighborood and enjoys the rapport that comes from their shared circumstances.
"That's why we like it here," said Terri Reynolds, one Brigade member who moved to Chantilly and a first home with her husband three years ago. "There are so many young families with kids. . . . As we moved in, most of us were just getting married and settling down."
Reynolds acknowledged that her situation in Chantilly is not ideal. She and her husband wanted a traditional house, but the cost was prohibitive and they settled on a town house. Eventually, they will move into a single-family house, she said, but they have become attached to Chantilly and plan to stay.
Although Reynolds is not employed outside the home, many mothers in Chantilly are. "I would guess that a majority work, either full or part time," Reynolds said. "There are a lot of home-based day-care centers right here in Winding Brook."
Large numbers of young families likewise give schools a special place in Chantilly. "That's manifested in the focus given to all school activities," said Chantilly High School Principal George A. Keim. "Graduation here is a major happening."
As families of working professionals arrive, standards for the schools have risen, Keim said. "The vitality is evident in the community. . . . It's exciting getting students from all over the world, and with them come new talents and expectations."
Yet growth also has given Chantilly's schools their most serious problem: overcrowding. Chantilly High School, for example, houses nearly 400 more students than its official capacity of 2,100. The student body is growing by as many as 150 students a year, the principal said.
Growth is worrisome in other ways, particularly as Chantilly's roads become more and more choked with automobiles. During rush hour, it often can take as long as 90 minutes to travel from Chantilly to the District, although the trip more typically takes about 40 minutes.
Rtes. 50 and 28, Chantilly's main avenues and prime development corridors, are slated to be six-lane, limited-access expressways eventually. Until then, however, many commuters avoid traffic jams by zipping dangerously through residential side streets.
"You'd always just as soon not see the growth," said Auston E. O'Neill, board chairman of the Chantilly Baptist Church. "But you can't stop it. I guess you call it progress." The church, which has a cemetery in its back yard with tombstones that date back to the church's beginnings in the 1870s, is situated at the intersection of Rtes. 50 and 28, soon to be surrounded by office development.
Of course, growth has its benefits.
Among the best of these, residents report gleefully, is the rapid rate at which property values are appreciating. At developments such as Brookfield, Pleasant Valley and Poplar Tree Estates, detached homes range from about $110,000 to $175,000 or more, local real estate brokers said. At town house projects such as Winding Brook, prices range from about $100,000 to $125,000. Houses often are snapped up within hours of being placed on the market.
Even neighborhood activists such as Garcia, who has made a name in the county as an aggressive advocate of controlled growth, are counting on development to give Chantilly something it now lacks: a commerical and cultural hub, a center of gravity for the loosely knit area.
Such a "downtown" would bring theaters, restaurants and recreational alternatives for youngsters and the elderly.
"I would like to see a Chantilly that accommodates everybody," Garcia said. "Right now, we can't do that."
Garcia also urged better planning to bring more parks in between Chantilly's new town houses and corporate office parks. Although nearby Ellanor C. Lawrence Park is popular with Chantilly residents, its thick, attractive woods aren't a substitute for the playing fields and community centers the area needs.
"Our children hang around the 7-Elevens and they hang around the High's Dairy Store ," said Garcia.
Growth is also giving Chantilly a sense of cohesion that was missing before, Garcia said. People have formed homeowners associations and appeared before county planning bodies to ensure that residents don't get squashed by Chantilly's inevitable development. The most recent issue to arouse residents is a Fairfax County proposal to construct a rehabilitation center on land at Dulles Airport for people convicted of driving while intoxicated.
"Growth has brought people together," said Davenport, who moved to Chantilly for the rural atmosphere and unexpectedly found himself president of the homeowners association for the Pleasant Valley subdivision. "You realize that, if you don't get involved and find out what's going on, by the time you do find out, it's too late."
Garcia agreed, saying, "Growth is like a child. If you let the child go rampant, you'll eventually have a very ugly child. If you guide the child from the beginning, you'll have a child you're very proud of."
For now, that child is still in its awkward stage, with Chantilly's rural heritage all but vanished, yet its future still undeterminded. Here and there, a bit of the past remains, such as the old-fashioned Chantilly Cash and Carry General Store, where a Confederate flag hangs inside. Many Chantilly residents, old and new, regularly shop at the general store, which sits incongruously at the intersection of Rte. 50 and Centreville Road, across the street from a new shopping plaza.
"Chantilly still has a little bit of country," Garcia said. "It's still got a little bit of tradition, and that's what we're trying to maintain."