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Great Falls:
Where BMWs Meet
Horse Trailers

By Jane Seaberry
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 15, 1992

When Jane Fragola moved to Great Falls nearly seven years ago she would stroll with her two children past a nearby barn some mornings just to smell the horses there.

Today, the barn is part of a new housing development, she said. But there is still a saddlery nearby where she can luxuriate in the aroma of horse-related leather goods.

"We always loved the area because it's horsey," Fragola said. "We like the openness and the rural feel that Great Falls has."

Despite some new development in Great Falls during the 1980s, the quiet, northernmost wedge of Fairfax County known for its wealth and million-dollar homes, still has a fairly rural character, with horses grazing behind white-washed fences, parks and an abundance of trees. Most roads are no wider than two lanes. Many streets are unpaved and sidewalks are scarce.

During the past decade development splashed through Great Falls, with numerous subdivisions built for mansions and equestrian estates. Fragola said that many newcomers closed off their property to horse-riders who previously had used their land to get to trails in nearby Great Falls National Park and Riverbend County Park.

But with the economic recession that has hit the rest of the Washington area, development in Great Falls has slowed, too, which pleases some residents who want to maintain the area's pastoral quality.

"Housing development has slowed dramatically," said Vivian Lyons, president of the Great Falls Citizens Association. "It has slowed down to practically nothing. There is some building going on but it seems to be more in what in Great Falls is the lower end of the range." That means houses costing from $300,000 to $500,000, Lyons said.

"A lot of properties in Great Falls have been hit, I think, harder than other areas," Lyons said. "It is a rather expensive community, but it's not as expensive as people think."

Houses that previously would have sold for more than $1 million now are only selling in the upper six-figure ranges.

Kay Bartel, sales manager of the Great Falls branch of Long and Foster Realtors, said some people took their houses off the market over the Christmas holidays.

"I think sellers were realizing they couldn't get the prices they wanted in their little dream world," Bartel said.

In December 1990, Bartel said 65 units were sold for a total of $32.4 million, an average of $498,462. A year later, 75 units were sold for $31.1 million, an average of $414,667.

"Sale prices have definitely dropped," Bartel said. In other words, the recession has made Great Falls more affordable.

"It's an erroneous notion that this is a snobby community of all $1 million equestrian estates," said John G. Colby, an architect and developer who lives and works in Great Falls.

Colby, who also dabbles in real estate, said that last week there were 33 houses on the market above $1 million as well as 33 below $340,000.

Bartel said prices range from about $300,000 to $2.2 million. Zoning does not permit apartments, condominiums or town houses in the community of about 4,000 homes.

Because of the way Great Falls is zoned, most new construction is on two-acre or five-acre lots.

The boundaries for the unincorporated community generally are considered to be the Potomac River on the North, Old Dominion Drive to Towlston Road on the east, Leesburg Pike on the south and the Loudoun County line on the west.

Many Great Falls neighborhoods are certainly less than exclusive, with houses that resemble two-story colonials in Burke, Springfield or Herndon. Some side streets hide simple one-story houses.

Colby said some of the $2 million mansions for sale are empty because of low demand. Some house prices have fallen by as much as $1 million, he said. Some properties have gone from builders to auction, "being bought in some cases for 50 cents on the dollar," Colby said.

Still, the million-dollar lifestyle is in evidence: Women in fur coats exit their Mercedeses to run errands at the post office. A man talks on a cellular telephone while walking down the street. Jaguars and Mercedeses ply the parking lot of the Village CentreŚrustic-looking buildings housing a travel agency, restaurants, designer home accessories and other shops.

One of the Washington area's top-rated, and priciest, restaurants, L'Auberge Chez Francois, is nearby and still draws droves of diners for its French country fare, no matter the recession.

Trucks and matching horse trailers pass houses with circular driveways as wide as streets and with names such as Grey Gables and Pine Hill posted on signs at the driveway entrances.

Colby, for example, described his patrons this way: "A typical client is relatively affluent individual who decided to move to Great Falls to have horses and live in the kind of two-acre density that most of Great Falls is developed as."

Fragola is one of Great Falls's horsey people. She became familiar with the area after her sister lived there for 16 years, she said. Since moving there nearly seven years ago from West Hartford, Conn., she has bought a horse that she boards at a small barn.

She said she is working on compiling a map of horse farms in the area and places where people ride.

"Having horses enhances the quality of everybody's life," Fragola said. "It keeps the open land open and we have a large community of people who are actively interested in staying where they are and being able to enjoy their hobby."

Colby said he had lived in Northwest Washington and Vienna before moving to Great Falls, which attracted him because of the pastoral setting, two major parks and the friendliness of the residents. He lives with his wife and two daughters in a 7,500-square-foot contemporary house with an indoor swimming pool on a two-acre lot in a subdivision with a man-made pond stocked with bass and bluegill.

"There's a certain magic about a pond in a subdivision that's very, very appealing to people for fishing, light boating, ice-skating, the amenity of looking out at some water instead of the brick walls of somebody else's house," Colby said.

His house is the third he has had built for himself since moving to Great Falls in 1978.

Because Great Falls is not dense enough to make garbage collection feasible for the county, many residents meet Saturday morning to dump their trash in dumpsters at the Great Falls Elementary School, Colby said.

"Everybody knows everybody," Colby said. "A lot of people use that as a social occasion. It's a Saturday morning pastime."

Lyons, who has lived in Great Falls since 1984, lives in a split-foyer contemporary on five acres. It is her second house in Great Falls.

"It's the character of the community that brought people out here in the first place," Lyons said.

"A lot of people who live out here have very high-pressure jobs and a lot of them have an enormous amount of responsibilityŚpublic figures, high-level executives," he said.

"These people want their privacy when they come home at night. They want to be able to sit out on their deck on the weekend and relax and not see who Joe next door is having over for a barbecue."

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