|At right, Heidi Deger and her friend Meghan Blaul, both 6, enjoy an early spring day outside at Hallcrest Heights in McLean.
|Photo Credit: Photos Ann Cameron Siegal For The Washington Post
In the mid-1990s, Hallcrest Heights in McLean appeared to be heading downhill.
Annual meetings at the 158-unit townhouse community were sparsely attended, leaning more toward gripe sessions than productive events. The houses and grounds were looking dreary. Semi-annual walk-throughs by the architectural board were christened "the parade of the picky people." The newcomers' welcome kit was an impersonal list of community rules.
And relationships between the board of directors and residents weren't so hot. "The old board spent $11,000 on lawyer's fees," said Clark Tyler, association president. "As soon as members had a problem, they'd call a lawyer."
Today, Hallcrest Heights has blossomed into a lively, attractive community where annual meetings draw more than 100 enthusiastic residents, architectural board walk-throughs are known for the kudos received, and newcomers receive a personal welcome along with a well-designed, informative packet of information.
The homeowners association could serve as a model, and residents credit Tyler, who assumed office in 1999, with much of the turnaround. His secret: Focus on the big picture and let the petty things go.
"We don't get into neighbor-to-neighbor problems," said Tyler, who added that he is always amazed at how much contention he finds in other homeowners associations. "If you get folks focused on something else, little problems will go away."
The "something else," or "biggies," as Tyler calls them, included beefing up a worn-out landscape, sharing ideas on ways to enhance 35-year-old townhouses, and building relationships with local businesses and community leaders.
Community spirit has soared, and Hallcrest Heights' all-volunteer board is praised for its sound fiscal policies and good public relations skills. "This community has exceeded all my expectations," said Lisa Pittman, a Capitol Hill staffer who moved in six years ago.
Quarterly dues of $270 cover front-yard mowing and mulching, maintenance for seven acres of common ground, trash collection, community lighting, road maintenance and capital improvements. Efficient long-range planning keeps the community within budget. "There are no special assessments," said Tyler, who often taps the expertise and advice of residents as well as local professionals.
Local designers were called on for remodeling workshops. A local arborist analyzed the trees and shrubbery on the property and gave advice on making the most of the tiny private spaces at the rear of the houses. Group discounts for services were sought and procured by the board.
In the past five years, more than 60 percent of residents have done major landscaping around their homes, Tyler said. Many have turned what were once concrete patios into cozy personal spaces with fountains, sculptures and benches. "You can do many things with a small yard," said Rosette White, whose husband, Bill, created a garden that is a visual extension of the house.
The Whites, who each owned a home in Hallcrest Heights before marrying nine years ago, started annual home tours in the community to allow residents to show off their upgrades. Rosette, a decorator in her native Belgium, and now a retired real estate agent, said: "I wanted to show people what could be done."
The addition of crown molding, built-in shelving, recessed lighting and French doors, all in keeping with the character of the house, are among the improvements that have turned the Whites' 2,400 square feet of living space into a showplace.
During the home tours, which feature 10 houses each year, residents provide one-page handouts with details such as who did the remodeling, the quality of the work, efficiency of the workers and what special materials were used. "They give real advice on real projects," Tyler said.
Dick and Kathy Meade have spent five years renovating their home and have four pages of contractors to recommend. "The good guys get passed around," Dick Meade said. "The bad guys don't get invited back."
The varied rooflines and staggered setbacks at Hallcrest Heights keep the community from looking too uniform. Pitched, mansard and flat roofs top houses that are clustered in short rows, allowing for 50 end units. Underground utilities prevent the cluttered look of overhead wires.
Enhancing the physical property was only the start. Hallcrest's board also ventured out beyond the community -- not rallying to oppose change, but doing its homework and seeking responsible solutions to problems.
For example, Metro seems to be heading to Tysons Corner someday, along the Dulles expressway directly behind the community. The current wooden fence does little to mask the drone of constant traffic. (Although Dick Meade said his grandchildren dug into their imagination to describe the hum as "our ocean sound," referring to sirens as the occasional "fire boat" passing.)
The community hired an acoustic engineer to draw up plans for replacing the privacy screen with a more effective sound barrier, then presented the proposal to state Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax). The result is that the Virginia Department of Transportation has been directed to come up with an estimate for the barrier by Oct. 1, putting the community closer to greatly reducing traffic noise.
Having a reputation as savvy citizens rather than flame-throwers is a source of pride for residents. "The more visible we can be with the name 'Hallcrest Heights,' the harder it is for anyone to ignore us or tell us to get lost," said Tyler.
Among the keys to getting phone calls returned appears to be the association's generosity with thank you notices in the community's newsletter. Whether the notices praise a public official who has gone the extra mile or the handyman who is reliable, the word spreads quickly.
The homeowners association doesn't ignore absentee owners, either. Rentals, once as high as 35 percent, have dropped to 23 percent. "We talk to nonresident owners frequently, keeping them up to date on the community and sales prices," said Tyler. A community advisory board, charged with pinpointing concerns and opportunities, is open to homeowners and tenants.
Building a community reputation involves give and take. When Fairfax County sought a community for a model project to reduce the yard debris that overwhelms county incinerators, a 15-year-old Hallcrest resident volunteered to spearhead the task.
Hallcrest already has a community brush pile where tree limbs and brush are ground up for mulch, but Douglas Landrum, a McLean High School student who loves science and the outdoors, has bigger plans for the county's pilot program.
Working toward his Eagle Scout award, Landrum wants to test various types of compost bins and educate residents on why composting is important. He has surveyed his neighbors to find out who has experience with composting and who is willing to help with the project. "I've had amazing support from the county and the community," he said.
The compost created by the project will be used within Hallcrest to improve its soil.
"Here's a prime example of residents getting involved and our county contacts rising to the occasion, all for a public purpose, " Tyler said. "All it takes is a catalyst and people who are willing to be pulled together."
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page G01
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