Michael Richardson thinks Sterling Park was a good place to grow up. So good, in fact, that he never left.

Richardson was 4 years old in 1963, the year his family moved to the quiet neighborhood 26 miles west of Washington in eastern Loudoun County. At the time, Sterling Park's modest homes were but a few dots on a blank canvas of farm land. Turkey hunting, baseball and roaming the open green spaces surrounding the neighborhood were among Richardson's favorite pastimes.

"It was the greatest place in the world to grow up. You could never get into too much trouble. If you did, your parents heard about it before you got home," he said.

"It's like a small town, only there's no chief of police or mayor," said Richardson's mother, Pat, who still lives in the white house she and her former husband bought 24 years ago. Michael, a captain with the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department, lives less than a half mile away in a three-bedroom rambler with his wife, Janice, who also grew up in the neighborhood, and their two children.

The brainchild of builder M.T. Broyhill, Sterling Park was Loudoun County's first planned community. Located on 1,750 acres of land inside a triangle bordered by Rte. 7 to the north, the Fairfax County line to the east and Rte. 28 to the west, it was a place where the American dream of owning a home became a reality for people of modest means.

"This was a place where people came to find something they could afford and that looked like a real neighborhood," said John Geddie, owner of the Loudoun Easterner newspaper and a Sterling Park resident since 1972. Michael Richardson added, "When Sterling Park was built, everybody was equal. You had air traffic controllers, policemen, firemen and carpenters. Now that the prices have gone up there is more of a cross section of people, more professionals than in the beginning. It also is a more transient place."

In the 1960s and 1970s, residents recall, houses sold for anywhere from $13,000 to $22,000. Today, house prices range from $75,000 to $80,000 for condominiums and up to $130,000 for single-family homes, according to Dave Wilson, a real estate consultant for ERA/Dulles Properties and former marketing manager for U.S. Steel, which developed a large part of the neighborhood.

About 90 percent of Sterling Park's more than 5,000 homes and apartments are owner-occupied, Wilson said. According to 1980 census figures, 16,080 people lived then in Sterling Park, a figure that is believed to be about the same today. At the time of the census, about 5 percent of Sterling Park's residents were black. But residents and county planners said that the demographics now are changing, with more blacks, Asians and other groups moving into the community every year.

When Broyhill began construction of Sterling Park in 1961, Loudoun County did not even have a sanitation department. Rte. 7, now four lanes, was a two-lane road, and there were few shops or amenities. Because the community exists on what was once pasture, there are no tree-lined streets, but some trees planted in the community's infancy have now matured.

The first building in the neighborhood was the recreation center on South Sterling Road. With an 18-hole golf course and two swimming pools, the club was designed to sell the houses that would come later.

"The club was built to entice people to come out here. It was a big part of their advertising," said current club manager Ray Prater, who himself was lured to the neighborhood by the golf course almost 25 years ago.

In the mid-1960s, Broyhill encountered financial trouble and was bought out by his major underwriter, U.S. Steel. Most of Sterling Park's homes were built by U.S. Steel until it pulled out in 1972, turning over the recreation club and common spaces to the neighborhood.

One big difference between Sterling Park and the planned communities that have sprung up around it since the 1960s is that the newer areas have homeowners associations.

"Citizens' associations weren't required in those days," said Prater. As a result, there is no provision for maintaining common areas -- particularly the "green areas," patches of land throughout the neighborhood overgrown with weeds and wild plants. To the homeowners whose properties run into the green areas, the patches are a sore spot.

The county doesn't take care of them because the patches are owned by the recreation club. But the recreation club doesn't have the resources to maintain them, so the green, weedy patches remain.

Residents say Sterling Park's schools are its strongest suit. There are four elementary schools, a junior high and a high school, as well as a private day care center, the Blake School.

"The teachers are great," said Geddie, whose son attends Park View High. "I would have mortgaged my house and sent them to private school if I thought {the public schools} weren't doing a good job," he said.

Residents also take pride in the active Little League sports programs.

While residents are proud of their community, a number of them are concerned that the recent influx of developers and new office parks and shopping centers on nearby tracts of land might threaten the small-town atmosphere that has made Sterling Park a nice place to live.

"The development is going to change this area. They're selling farm land. There's fewer open spaces," said Michael Richardson.

"They're building everywhere from here to Leesburg. You can just see the traffic getting heavier every day," said Thomas Thompson, who moved to the area 25 years ago after living in Alexandria and Falls Church. Like other areas in Northern Virginia hit by heavy development, traffic is becoming a major headache in Sterling Park. Although more Sterling Park residents now work for companies in the immediate area, large numbers still commute into the District of Columbia everyday.

"The traffic is hellacious," said Richardson. "The roads haven't been improved in 15 to 20 years but the population has tripled."

Others, however, feel that the development is good for the community. Additional businesses have generated a larger tax base. The arrival of new shops and restaurants, some residents said, makes life much more interesting.

"I like the idea that there's a little variety now. If that takes away from the small town atmosphere, it's okay," said Geddie. "Civilization is catching up with us."