By the time Angela and Britt Heisig moved to Oakton's Berryland Farm last September, they knew their neighbors, the previous owner of their home and the history of the community.
"We were invited to our first party before we moved in," Britt Heisig said. Neighbors combined a going-away party for the original owners with a welcome party for the Heisigs. "They made us feel that we were going into the right situation," he said.
The Heisigs learned about Berryland Farm's traditions, such as the huge Labor Day picnic, the spring plant exchange, the last-day-of-school ice cream social and the winter ornament exchange. They learned about reliable lawn services, neighborhood babysitters and dog walkers. And they received standing invitations to use one neighbor's pool and another's kayak -- all before moving in one piece of furniture.
It was just such community spirit that caught Pier McGrath's attention 10 years ago. "Our first impression was very positive," she said. "We drove through just after a big storm and saw everyone out working together to clean up debris."
Along Vale Road is a sign that says the street was adopted by "Your Berryland Neighbors." Every few months, residents take responsibility for sections of a two-mile stretch, "often getting a honk and a friendly wave or thank-you from passersby," association president Donald Massey said.
McGrath, a former dance teacher in Alexandria who now teaches Spanish-immersion classes for Fairfax County public schools, describes Berryland Farm as "a southern hospitality neighborhood." It didn't take long for word to spread and a steady stream of folks to drop by when the McGraths recently got a new puppy.
While McGrath thrives on the drop-in-anytime atmosphere, Berryland's expansive acreage allows for privacy, too. "There is room for all types here. Be involved if you want, and pass if you want," Massey said.
Berryland has a blend of contemporary, Tudor and Colonial-style houses on lots of an acre or more. The openness, berms and greenery make it difficult to tell where one yard stops and another starts.
Valerie Tinley recalled when she first drove into the community in 1990. "I drove over that hill [on Berryland Drive] and looked down. It was like living in a park -- living in nature," she said.
Residents enjoy a wooded refuge at a hidden, private spring-fed pond where they fish for smallmouth bass in the summer and ice-skate or play impromptu ice hockey games in the winter. Horses saunter by on bridle trails along Difficult Run; foxes and deer frequently poke their heads out of the woods.
Sean Sherman, a former association president and a resident since 1996, said he was attracted to the community because of the towering trees. "In new developments, they come in and cut down all the trees, but when Berryland Farm was built" in the early 1980s, he said, "many of the trees were left standing." Most of the 150 houses have large back porches or sunrooms overlooking greenery rather than other houses.
Tooley Milstead, an original resident, said the builders left a walnut grove behind her house. "We put in large windows to take advantage of views," she said. "What these houses have become is what we love about the community."
As a sixth grade teacher, Milstead also was thrilled to find pottery shards on her property that date to the Civil War. She had the pieces evaluated by experts. "The theory is that they came from an officers' encampment . . . possibly during the first battle of Manassas," she said.
Although it's only 10 minutes from downtown Vienna, Berryland Farm does seem rather remote at times. During a major snowstorm several years ago, Tinley said, an ambulance could not navigate the neighborhood's winding roads and rolling terrain to assist a woman about to have a baby. Several residents piled blankets on a child's sled and pulled the expectant mother uphill to meet the waiting medical staff. "It was a pretty hard climb," Tinley said.
"We just prepare when storms are coming," said Laura May, an elementary school counselor. "It's surreal," she said. "When we're holed up and can't go anywhere, we walk around the corner onto Vale Road where folks are traveling along fine. You feel isolated, but you're really not."
While Berryland Farm offers quick access to Interstate 66 and the Dulles Toll Road, many residents have become experts at navigating back roads. Marty Fertal has a 15-minute commute to Reston via winding lanes that snake past horse farms and over a one-lane bridge. "I've paid my dues with rugged commutes," he said. "This is a piece of cake."
Fertal, another former association president, describes Berryland's board as having "a healthy turnover in leadership."
"People want to help but then move on," he said, taking with them "an appreciation for what is involved in running a community." His wife, Linda Fertal, who has served on the community's social committee for three years, said: "Some people move into a neighborhood and really bring things together. We've had a long string of such people." She said she would relinquish her post after the current term to make way for someone with new ideas.
Association dues of $147 per year are used to pay for social events and maintain the common areas, tennis courts and playgrounds.
As the Heisigs approach their one-year anniversary in Berryland Farm, Britt Heisig noted that even though his commute to Ballston is 45 minutes, his former trip from Annandale took at least that long, even though the distance was shorter. However, he said, the main difference is what awaits him at the end of the drive home.
As parents of a 20-month-old daughter, the Heisigs have found an extended family in their new community. "There's a nice mixture of ages here -- new babies, young families and mature couples," Angela Heisig said.
More important, Britt Heisig said, "There's a lot of warmth and affection among neighbors."
Backyard porches and decks offer beautiful views of Berryland Farm's wooded landscape.The view down one of the hills on Berryland Drive in the idyllic Oakton development Berryland Farm.