Seven years ago, Toni and Ray Ness ignored the advice of the real estate agent who tried to dissuade them from buying a house in Prince William County's Ashland community. A few townhouses had been built, but most of the area was woods and mud. As they recall, the agent told them that nothing would ever happen there.
The Nesses were nevertheless intrigued and optimistic about the neighborhood, so they purchased one of Ashland's first single-family houses and waited.
Today, new houses in Ashland are sold out -- the last of the 880 homes was purchased in March. While there are still some houses under construction, Ashland has grown into the kind of planned community the Nesses envisioned.
"In the last four years, things have boomed," said Toni. "We knew it was all in the plan."
A half-dozen builders have constructed a mix of housing styles. Townhouses start at about 1,500 square feet and Colonials range from about 3,300 to 5,000 square feet. Some have large, light-filled "morning rooms" off rear kitchens, some offer Y-shaped master bedrooms with his-and-hers walk-in closets and separate sitting areas. Particularly popular are floor plans with interior staircases placed at the rear or side of the house, where they are not visible from the front door.
For John and Jo Tyler, having no houses directly behind them was the big draw. One-third of Ashland's 575 acres was left natural, with woodland throughout, so more than half of the homes back to clusters of mature trees. The Tylers say they enjoy watching wildlife from their kitchen window.
Ashland, which has a Manassas address, stretches for two miles along the north side of Dumfries Road (Route 234) just south of Dale City, and is flanked by new schools, Ashland Elementary and Forest Park Senior High. The 14,000-acre Prince William Forest Park is on the other side of Route 234.
Most of Ashland's 30-plus streets end in cul-de-sacs. Their names read like a guide to Virginia's historical sites: Hume School Court, Bowman's Folly Drive, Lyceum Lane and others represent places in the state's register of landmarks.
Ashland's community center offers tennis and basketball courts, a large pool and a well-equipped fitness center. It is a good walk or an easy bicycle ride for those living at either end of the community. Another community center is under construction.
When Alex Hubley's husband retired from the Navy, the couple sought a permanent home by visiting every new community they could find. Ashland was just the right size. "It's not so big that you need a bus to get from your home to the pool," Hubley said.
Between active groups of Bunco players (a dice game), the swim team, Scout groups and community-wide festivals, there are ample opportunities to become involved in Ashland, and the school/community connection would be the envy of many a neighborhood. Ashland volunteers are everywhere -- tutoring, landscaping or working the book fairs. Ashland Elementary's parent-teacher group raised more than $30,000 last year. More than 400 people attended its fundraising dinner in April.
Frances Vinson, a newcomer to the neighborhood, said, "I came to Ashland kicking and screaming. I didn't want to leave my old neighborhood." Vinson, a decorator and avid gardener, left 500 tulips behind at her former home.
Still, with one son in high school and another close behind, Vinson and her husband wanted a home with more space where their sons could entertain friends.
After eight months in Ashland, however, she said, "I've met so many wonderful people. This is really home now." In the fall, she will be planting tulip bulbs around her new house.
One original owner, Mary Ann Mumford, who helped start the community's garden club, said, "You can put pretty trees and houses anywhere you want, but it is the people who make the community."
Julie Melvin, president of the garden club, said, "We're all transplants from elsewhere. We have to be each other's family."
The matriarch of her block is Helene Jones, 89, who until recently hosted ice cream sundae parties for the 16 children on the street. Now she needs to limit her activities, so the neighbors come to her aid.
"They are friends more than neighbors," said Jones. "They fix me dinner and take me on errands."
Melvin's husband, Michael, a defense contractor, is president of Ashland's homeowners association, which is assuming the community's management role from the developers.
"We're still finding our legs," he said, describing the association as "laid back" with "a common sense approach to things." The architectural review committee is "firm and consistent, but not strict," he said. Its goal is to "protect other people's investments and maintain a consistency throughout the community."
Enforcing community rules is a thankless job, noted Mumford, who is known as "the curtain lady" because of the custom window treatment business she runs out of her home. "It's hard to see the plus side now [of the rules], because we are so new, but 20 years from now, it will make a big difference."
Like many of their neighbors, Mumford's husband, who works for Stars and Stripes, commutes to Washington via the Horner Road slug lines, which have recently become so popular that redirecting traffic patterns became necessary. Access to the Prince William County Parkway and Interstate 95 are nearby, and commuters are not far from the Manassas or Quantico Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak stations.
Construction dust and noise will be a part of Ashland's landscape for a while. Route 234 is scheduled for widening and a 100,000-square-foot retail/office center is slated for construction between Ashland's clubhouse and Forest Park Senior High.
Even so, as his family heads into its eighth year in Ashland, Ray Ness said, "Sometimes you look back and say, 'We should have looked elsewhere,' but we don't feel that way."