When Suzanne and Steven Fulton decided earlier this year that 12 years of town house life in Reston was enough, they began canvassing the ads and real estate offices in Northern Virginia for a home to buy.
They were looking for more space and privacy. They were looking for trees. They were looking for a small community that offered an ambiance of rural refinement.
The Fultons believe they found the right mix in Great Falls.
"It's a lovely neighborhood. We're very pleased with it," said Suzanne Fulton, 41. The Fultons bought a four-bedroom contemporary style home on two wooded acres in western Great Falls.
Like scores of newcomers and residents before them, the Fultons have found the life style they sought in this northern Fairfax County community of gentle hills, winding country roads and estate-size homes scattered on large lots.
Low in profile, Great Falls has attracted many high-profile names, including Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, Washington Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder and various politicians and corporate executives. A great deal of its appeal, residents say, is that it seems much farther away from the bustle of Washington than just 20 miles.
"This is kind of a refuge out here. It is that kind of a setting in Great Falls," said a vice president with a defense contracting firm who lives in a $900,000 home.
Make no mistake about it: Great Falls has no public sewer or water system, but this is not the sticks. It is comprised of single-family homes on lots that generally range from two to five acres. The homes on the market run from about $200,000 to $1.4 million, according to multiple real estate listings, and currently average above $600,000.
Zoning in Great Falls doesn't permit apartments, condominiums or town houses. Its planned density for development is one of the lowest in the county. Many homeowners in this community of 3,500 want to keep it just that way.
It is the beginning of horse country. It is the place where homeowners recently vocally objected to a proposed Roy Rogers fast-food restaurant, denouncing it for its trash- and traffic-producing potential. But the residents lost and now the Roy Rogers is located at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Walker Road, the closest this community comes to a downtown.
While the unincorporated community has no official boundary, Great Falls' unofficial markers are regarded as running from the Potomac River on the north, Old Dominion Drive to Towlston Road on the east; Leesburg Pike on the south and the Loudoun County line on the west.
Residents have fought to preserve Great Falls' semi-rural character; but even then, change has come. The first major surge of subdivision development began in the early 1970s, partly stemming from sewer moratoriums imposed elsewhere in Fairfax. As a result, residential builders fanned out to areas like Great Falls, where sewage must be treated in septic fields and where enough land was available to subdivide into large lots. The subdivisions continue to multiply to this day.
During the first six months of this year, developers have filed plans to build as many as 15 more subdivisions in Great Falls, according to Marge Brown, an aide to Fairfax County Supervisor Nancy Falck (R-Dranesville), who represents the community.
"The demand is there for the houses. As long as the demand is there, I'm sure they'll continue to develop," Brown said.
Donald Dildy, who builds custom homes in the $1 million-plus range in Great Falls, believes more development is inevitable. Dildy predicted that many of the older, smaller homes that have stood for many decades will be torn down and replaced by the bigger, fancier homes that make up so much of the Great Falls landscape.
Nonetheless, Dildy thinks the tranquil appeal of the community will remain.
"The builders coming in are going to be building the best products the companies have ever built," Dildy said. "I think they perceive it will be more of a Beverly Hills-type of community."
Real estate agent Ann Clifford with Long & Foster in Great Falls said the community seemed a well-kept secret until about three years ago.
"It was a sleeper. People just didn't seem to be discovering it," Clifford said. "They had the perception that because it looked rural, it was too far out from D.C. What has changed it has been the movement of the economic base westward."
While many Great Falls homeowners have jobs in Washington, Clifford said an increasing number go to work in such growing economic centers as Tysons Corner, Reston and the bustling Dulles International Airport corridor.
Bruce and Elizabeth Bowen and their two young children are among these new residents. Bruce Bowen is the director of finance for PacifiCorp. Capital Inc., a leasing company in the Tysons Corner area, while his wife is a homemaker. They plan to move into a $400,000 home on two acres in the Windermere subdivision off Georgetown Pike next spring.
In Great Falls, said 28-year-old Elizabeth Bowen, "you have the perfect setting."
"My husband and I both like having a little bit of land, something to call our own. I think that's why people are moving to Great Falls. They want a little more privacy," she said.
Like everywhere else in Fairfax County, the development has brought the commuter crunch to Great Falls. While many residents say traffic congestion is not as bad as in other areas of the county, they find it irritating all the same.
Born and bred in a Great Falls that was once the domain of dairy farms, Milburn Sanders, 65, said the cars become "a solid line" during rush hour outside his modest, red brick home on Georgetown Pike.
"I was never accustomed to waiting to get out of my driveway at 6:15 a.m., but it's part of today's life," Sanders said. "You can't do anything about it."
Sanders' house sits on nearly nine acres of land, and often it provides an irresistible temptation to deer, raccoons and squirrels that nibble on tomato plants, corn and apple trees.
Sanders, who manages and edits technical publications, and his wife, Ellen, 63, a church secretary, bought their land in 1951 and built their home in 1962. The house is cozy and filled with treasured mementos, a world away from the big tract homes that have cropped up in his neighborhood. He calls the new homes "institution-size mansions," while other have dubbed them "tract mansions."
Sanders talks dreamily of erecting log outhouses in the front yards of these estates, then putting up no-trespassing signs.
"I'm a great detractor of grandeur," said the graying Sanders. "I'm not accustomed to all this falderal."
Harrison and Joan Wehner of Great Falls have gotten to know a lot of residents like Sanders, some of whom left long ago in search of more rural environs.
In 1965, when the Wehners were in their mid-20s, they moved to a small, frame cottage nestled about 900 feet from Georgetown Pike.
The Wehners' cottage is now about four times its original size and sits on 15 acres of land. The Wehners also have a flower garden, two dogs, a cat, a horse, a rabbit and a two-acre vineyard that produces 100 gallons of wine a year.
Harrison Wehner is chairman of Buvermo Management Inc., an international real estate investment firm, while his wife is active in Republican Party politics.
Joan Wehner said their home is more "scaled to human beings" than many of the larger homes that have since been built. Still, she considers the influx of large, expensive homes "an inevitable sign of a healthy economy."
Wehner believes her community has thoughtfully guided its growth, but she has fond memories about the Great Falls that she once knew.
"I used to know everybody," she lamented. "I don't anymore."