Not sure what colors you're allowed to paint your house? Can't remember which types of plastic get recycled? For residents of Wellington Commons, a townhouse community in Fairfax County, that information and more is on an extensive neighborhood Web site.
Such sites are common for large planned communities, but Wellington Commons is a neighborhood of just 140 townhouses. The site (www.wellingtoncommons.net), developed by resident Bill Werick and maintained by resident Steve Bogart, contains photos of the gazebo, the association meeting schedule, news about current issues, trash and recycling instructions, the homeowners guide, and the architectural review committee procedures.
It even contains an illustrated glossary of house vocabulary for new homeowners who are baffled by terms such as "soffit" and "fascia." The beautification-options page allows residents to comment via e-mail on proposals for neighborhood improvements.
The site is also an easy way for residents to keep track of the home maintenance procedures, such as exterior paint and coverings, allowed by the homeowners association. When cedar stain was added to the list of acceptable deck treatments, it was added to the Web site -- no need to waste paper printing new versions of the homeowners guidebook.
Wellington Commons, constructed by Annandale-based Carr Homes in 1987, is a closely spaced community of red brick three-story townhouses, with trim and shutters in low-key Colonial hues. Most have second-story decks and ground-level patios in small back yards surrounded by tall wooden privacy fences. Many residents have added elaborate trelliswork, flagstones or enhanced wood decks to their yards.
The focal point of the community is the gazebo set against a graceful fountain and pond full of bright orange koi fish. "Kids love watching the fish here in the summer," resident Nils Hubert said. Residents pay $205 a quarter for maintenance of this and other common areas.
The community has three floor plans, all featuring at least one fireplace and three large windows across the front upper story. Several houses in each row also have a large bay window facing the street.
The neighborhood has sidewalks throughout, and on a recent weekend morning a couple strolled past the neat, small front lawns, while another resident slowed his truck to exchange greetings with his neighbor at the cluster of covered mailboxes. Yet another family loaded box after box into a small moving van parked in their one reserved parking space directly in front of the house.
Moving vans have been a familiar sight in the past year as 17 of the 140 houses sold in 2002 -- a 12 percent turnover.
Some residents speculate that the housing market prompted older residents considering retirement to sell for a hefty profit and relocate to less expensive, less urban areas.
The easy commute to the Pentagon and other local military installations attracts a transient military population. A steady stream of Congress members and diplomats also call Wellington Commons home.
One benefit of the turnover in the community is that new residents can quickly assume responsibility in neighborhood government. William Trahan and his wife thought it would be great to get involved in the homeowners association shortly after their move in August 2001; a little more than a year later, he was elected president. This is the Trahans' first house.
During his first three months in office, Trahan says the two top issues have been planning the repaving of the parking lots and installation of a new tot lot to replace the one damaged in a tornado in September 2001.
That was the day Mary Matthews pulled into Wellington Commons and couldn't figure out why her neighbor was sitting on his front steps, head in his hands, back heaving with emotion. She then saw his shiny new SUV, windows shattered. Only then did she notice the two cars that had been picked up and smashed into each other, the mud slung onto the mailbox kiosks, the trees torn down, and her own roof and back fence ripped off and blown away.
She watched TV news coverage of the larger damage the same tornado caused in College Park and felt lucky that no one died in her neighborhood. While she said it didn't bring neighbors closer, it did make them more aware. She and her next-door neighbor called a roofer who came out in the storm to patch the roof.
For that work, Matthews didn't need permission. For most exterior modifications, however, residents must apply for permission from the architectural review committee. The committee promises residents a response to their applications within 30 days. Exterior modifications not requiring the committee's approval are repainting with the same color paint, altering ground-level patios and landscaping in residents' back yards. The requirements are spelled out in the homeowners guidebook, including the most commonly underreported modifications: adding a storm door, changing trim color or planting trees.
Art teacher Peggy Nigon said she doesn't mind the rules governing exterior colors. She drives past a pair of bright teal houses every day on her way to work and "wonders how that happened." She said she likes that the home colors in Wellington Commons all match.
Like many of her neighbors, Nigon plans modifications to her back deck. The last owners got carried away, she thinks, by decking the whole back yard. She wants some green space, so she plans to remove the wood.
Nigon has lived in Wellington Commons only for a couple of months, but she said the light-filled houses and the location were the biggest attractions.
On a recent weekend morning, she trimmed her front greenery and pulled up scalloped edging left by the previous owner, while speaking fondly of her bay-windowed red brick house with cream and Colonial blue trim. "It has a tremendous amount of light," she said.
Nigon found Wellington Commons when she decided she had outgrown her Arlington condo but wanted to stay east of the dreaded "mixing bowl" to avoid heavy traffic. Even now, her commute to elementary schools near Mount Vernon can take 25 to 60 minutes, depending on Wilson Bridge traffic.
Matthews also chose the neighborhood because of its location -- across the street from Thomas A. Edison High School, where her son and daughter are students. Though the high school felt large to her two children, who were used to a 600-student Defense Department school in Japan, Edison is one of the smaller Fairfax County high schools, with 1,700 students.
After a year and a half, both of the Matthews high schoolers are doing well, said their mom, and are involved in activities such as the school football team. Living across Franconia Road from the school "makes after-school activities really easy," Matthews said, because neither of her children drove when they moved in and her work schedule prevented her from shuttling them to activities.
However, "parking can be a problem" for guests, Matthews said, because each home has one reserved space, and cars parked in non-reserved spaces must have Wellington Commons stickers on them. While there are plenty of spaces for residents and their cars, Matthews has avoided having a large party due to the parking constraints. During off hours, some residents have solved this problem by instructing guests to park at the high school.
The community is within walking distance of the huge Kingstowne development, with its shopping center, miniature golf course, lake, and bike and walking paths. Just across Van Dorn Street from the shopping center, a row of at least 10 bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment stands in a line at the edge of a cleared, sprawling expanse of land. The machines stand at the ready to turn the open space into the next planned community.
With the quick access to shopping, the Beltway, I-395 and Metro, "I can't think of anything we need or use that we can't get to in five minutes or less. It's got all the conveniences," Hubert said.