Conversations about Lake Ridge often start with a confession: If it had been up to them, many residents of this Prince William County community say, they would have moved somewhere else instead of Lake Ridge.

But the high cost of housing elsewhere made their decision for them. Many Lake Ridge residents said they moved to eastern Prince William only after early searches convinced them that a home further to the north and closer to Washington was beyond their means.

"There was a negative stigma," said Susan Olesak, recalling her move to Lake Ridge five years ago. "For a long time, I felt bad about living in Prince William County. I felt I should be living in Fairfax."

Yet as Lake Ridge has matured, the development has surprised many of the people who once lowered their expectations to move there. Olesak and other residents said their perception of Lake Ridge has changed.

Lake Ridge has become not just a large residential development, but a genuine community -- the kind of place that inspires lasting loyalty among its residents.

When Olesak and her husband, John, move from their town house into a larger home, they said they plan to stay at Lake Ridge. Both have become enmeshed in the community by taking the lead in such groups as the Lake Ridge homeowners' association and a parent-teacher organization at their daughter's elementary school.

No longer eager to flee to Fairfax, Susan Olesak now says: "There's something magnetic about this community."

Furthermore, new stores and restaurants in and around Lake Ridge mean that residents no longer have to drive long distances for shopping and entertainment -- making the community seem less the distant outpost it once did.

Situated along the southern side of the Occoquan River, about 25 miles south of the District of Columbia, Lake Ridge is a collection of individual subdivisions that opened in the early 1970s. The development is nearing completion.

Lake Ridge has about 6,700 detached houses and town houses, which are home to more than 25,000 people, according to a compilation by the homeowners' association. After Dale City, Lake Ridge is Prince William's largest residential development.

Housing prices vary from about $80,000 for modest town houses to $250,000 or more for the most elaborate homes, according to local real estate brokers.

Prince William has one of the youngest populations in the Washington area and has the highest percentage of two-income families. Many Lake Ridge residents fit this description. Numerous residents are first-time home buyers or serve in the armed forces, both of which make Lake Ridge a transient place.

Instead of detracting from solid neighborhood bonds, some Lake Ridge civic activists say the transient nature of the community is an incentive to forging a sense of community. Because people come and go so often, neighborhoods greet newcomers not with suspicion, but with an eager welcome and encouragement to get involved in clubs or activities.

"The transience is really a plus," said resident Rocky Cutuli. "People are willing to jump in and participate ... . If anyone is bored around here, it's their own fault."

Perhaps because of the relative youth and upward mobility of Lake Ridge's population, some residents acknowledge that there is an undercurrent of status-consciousness in life at Lake Ridge.

Residents are proud of the fact that Lake Ridge has a reputation as one of Prince William's most upscale communities -- and they don't seem to mind that many people elsewhere in the county consider Lake Ridge just a little snooty.

"If people ask where you're from, you say Lake Ridge, not Woodbridge," said one resident. "There's a certain snobbery you don't want to talk about."

A civic activist said, "You want to make people realize {that} we are not Dale City."

By the same token, Lake Ridge residents often make invidious distinctions between their own neighborhoods. A street of detached homes is considered more prestigious than one lined with town houses, and certain areas -- such as the posh Lynnwood community -- are considered most upscale of all.

This concern with appearance -- and the conviction that the Lake Ridge area has a "specialness" about it -- have a beneficial side. The corridor around Davis Ford Road, the primary route leading to Lake Ridge, has avoided much of the over-development and gaudy appearance afflicting some other parts of Prince William, partly because of the work of a core of civic activists based in Lake Ridge.

Members of the Lake Ridge-Occoquan Civic Association tirelessly monitor development proposals, often attempting to block or alter those they find objectionable. One of the group's ongoing crusades is to persuade area business officials -- some more recalcitrant than others -- to replace the ostentatious signs for fast-food restaurants and stores with less obtrusive alternatives.

"It's not to be snooty" said Mary Beth Smith, president of Lake Ridge-Occoquan group. "It's to have a quality approach to our neighborhood."

Smith called the balance between accommodating growth and maintaining an attractive physical setting "a very fragile thing. You get one developer coming in who doesn't want to play ball ... . "

Lake Ridge residents are far from opposed to all development. In fact, they credit some recent projects for a decided improvement in their quality of life.

Among these are Tackett's Mill, a collection of boutiques and specialty stores accompanying a traditional grocery store and drug store. Even more recent is the new Lake Ridge Commons shopping plaza, featuring a supermarket, ice cream parlor, video rental store and other stores at the western end of Lake Ridge.

Most Lake Ridge residents said they are pleased with the quality of schools. Unlike some other places in the county, most Lake Ridge pupils attend school in or close to the development. In addition, voters in a referendum last month approved the sale of about $11.2 million in bonds to construct the new Lake Ridge Middle School.

Because Lake Ridge is a "planned community," all residents are members of the Lake Ridge Parks and Recreation Association. This homeowners group -- of which John Olesak is president -- oversees the development's parks, tennis courts and pools and sets architectural standards on homeowner improvements. Residents pay monthly dues, which vary depending on which section of Lake Ridge they occupy.

As Susan Olesak said: "I feel very lucky to be here. We were innocents as far as real estate. You get more house here for the money."