"If you come with a complaint, come with a solution." That's the unofficial motto of the Wellington homeowners association.
Five years ago, Stephanie Shoram objected to some of the Manassas community's "rather elaborate" covenants requiring storage sheds to have siding and shingles that matched the house. "The shed had to basically look like a mini house," she said.
As it was the first time she and her husband had ever lived in a community with an homeowners association, Shoram assumed that because her townhouse's back yard was surrounded by a six-foot privacy fence, blocking any view of it, the shed regulations didn't apply.
A Rubbermaid shed was erected. A violation letter soon followed.
"I joined a committee to get things rewritten," she said. Shoram is now president of Wellington's association.
The community's stringent design guidelines are aimed at preventing unpleasant surprises. A big consideration in reviewing a homeowner's request for changes to the exterior of a residence or yard is whether the change will affect neighbors, visually or functionally.
The residents' handbook describes adverse functional effects as "additions which would cause a material loss of sunlight or ventilation to a neighboring dwelling, and an alteration in topography which would change drainage patterns to the detriment of a neighboring property."
The covenants committee also approves the addition of decorative objects in the yard and the planting of vegetable gardens. Any changes to exterior color schemes or materials used must also go through the review process. Storm doors must be the full-glass style. Mailboxes must be black.
Because of Shoram's proposal, though, Wellington's 565 townhouses with privacy fences have some flexibility in shed styles. However, for the 575 single-family houses, where split rail fences are the only option, the "mini house" design still stands.
Tom Priddy, a systems manager with Knight Ridder Inc., moved to Wellington from South Carolina 10 years ago. The regulations "give a sense of continuity," he said. "There's a comfort level, if everyone's on the same plane, as to what you can do with your house."
For 10 years, Floyd Williams, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration, has kept the evergreens flanking the front of his four-bedroom Colonial precisely shaped. His lawn is so green and meticulously trimmed that weeds wouldn't dare take root.
Williams said his immediate neighbors share his interest in property maintenance. Several years ago, they negotiated a group rate for underground sprinkler systems in each yard on his cul-de-sac. Williams doesn't mind the design guidelines and doesn't see the oversight as being intrusive. "Can you imagine if I wanted to sell my house and the guy over there painted his house pink?" he said.
Despite the regulations, there are enough variations in housing styles and window arrangements and enough winding trails and open spaces throughout Wellington to keep it all looking interesting.
Suzanne Seaberg, mother of three young children, sought a family-oriented community with mature trees and sidewalks. On weekday mornings she regularly takes a brisk three-mile walk through the neighborhood and beyond with several other moms pushing strollers along wide paths that often allow for three across.
With her youngest in a backpack, Seaberg gets a good workout. One-third of the hike follows a winding wooded path, past a reservoir and along streams where red foxes and blue herons are occasionally spotted.
There are three playgrounds within a quarter mile of Seaberg's house, "one with swings, one by a pond and one in the shade," she said.
On weekdays, Wellington is quiet. But on weekends, or when school is out, the outdoor scene is lively. In nice weather, kids haul out the scooters, bikes and balls, while grown-ups work on their yards. The association ordered about 2,000 bags of mulch this year and most were gone within a few days of delivery.
When the pool is closed, social activity seems to be block or cul-de-sac oriented, but there are the usual association-sponsored holiday celebrations for the whole community. "We try to get acts you wouldn't normally get on your own," Seaberg said. Storytellers, clowns, magicians and pony rides are frequent fare at Wellington events.
Wellington's acreage was once known as Clover Hill Farm. Rutt Johnson purchased the property in 1770 and reportedly planted acres of oak and apple trees. Johnson family members rebuilt the farm after the Civil War, and the property remained a large farm until 1988.
The community center, a stately columned building on Wellington Road, has a display of some of the original farming tools found on the property.
Commuting to the District by car from Manassas can be a headache. Williams prefers the Virginia Railway Express, a mile away in Old Town Manassas. "It's better than driving because of the wear and tear on your car and your body," he said.
Ted Spilsbury and his wife, Marilyn, formerly lived in Alexandria but visited Splashdown Park in Manassas frequently, so they started looking around at houses. "It was more affordable," he said.
Eleven years ago, they were looking at an existing townhouse elsewhere when they came upon a hole in the ground that was going to be a new townhouse in Wellington. "There was no comparison," he said of their three-level, four-bedroom unit with a finished walk-out basement.
Donna Wills and her husband purchased their home in 1992. "We wanted something that would be a good rental if we went overseas," she said while relaxing on the large, wide porch with her two Cavalier King Charles spaniels. Between several State Department-generated moves, the Wills always looked forward to returning to Wellington.
When asked what was within an easy 10-minute drive from her home, Wills responded enthusiastically, "Everything! We would never have to leave Manassas if we didn't want to."
Now, as they plan to retire to Georgia, she has mixed feelings about leaving a place she calls "friendly but not pushy."
Although she can't wait to be closer to her grandchildren, she said, "I always thought that Wellington was the best community in Manassas."