John Ringle started with 244 acres of land "out in the country," and made a mark on the south county that few developers dream of achieving.
Ringle and his development company, International Investment and Development Corp., created a template of 5-acre lots, which he called "estates," in the southern portion of Fairfax County, which now encompasses Clifton and Fairfax Station.
Ringle, 75, and his wife Maxine, 72, were recently awarded a proclamation from Fairfax County by Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) for a "visionary and environmentally sound approach to development of the Occoquan Watershed."
John Ringle's company, called Investco, was responsible for the construction of 11 communities west of Route 123 and adjacent to the Occoquan Reservoir. Those communities, with lush-sounding names like "Shadowwalk" and "The Singing Woods," were built on principles and dedicated to keeping low-density a priority.
"John was kind of an environmentalist before the times. He realized before the county did that there was justification in keeping the density low," said Bill Cole, a resident of one of Ringle's communities since 1977 and the co-founder of the Occoquan Watershed Coalition. Cole said the OWC owes much of its inspiration to Ringle's dedication to keeping the land in mind when developing.
RINGLE, WHO had experience developing in the Bahamas prior to working in Fairfax County, had his eye on the land in the south part of the county in the early 1960s.
"The natural progression of growth [from Washington, D.C.] was out in this area," said Ringle.
Developing 1-acre lots, as was the custom, wasn't feasible to Ringle, who was concerned about protecting the quality of the nearby Occoquan Reservoir.
"In the areas that had estates, like McLean and Great Falls … the soils were such that they needed to have a sewer system," said Ringle. "I was just afraid that if we put a sewer system down in this area, that drains naturally to the Occoquan Reservoir, it would be a terrible mistake."
Ringle hatched the idea of developing larger, 5-acre lots, and trying hard to preserve the natural beauty of the heavily wooded landscape.
He was approached by a group that owned 244 acres of land south of Henderson Road (Route 643) but was looking to sell, after plans to build Dulles Airport in nearby Burke didn't materialize.
"We weren't as interested in making a fortune as we were in creating a community such as now exists," said Ringle.
So Ringle bought the land, and soon his first community, English Hills, was a reality. Each of his subsequent communities was built on similar principles, which included making sure each home had a distinctive split-rail fence erected at the front of the property adjacent to the road. Ringle also limited the size of homes and required that his company approve all plans. Only recently, within the past two years, has control been handed over to each community's homeowners association.
WHAT RINGLE didn't realize at the time was that he was creating a pattern of building with respect to the land that would have far-reaching implications. In 1982, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to downzone 41,000 acres of land in the Fairfax Station and Clifton areas to minimum lot sizes of 5 acres. This was done to create a "natural buffer area in the watershed of the Occoquan Reservoir, a source of drinking water for almost a million Northern Virginia residents," according to the proclamation.
"When you have people who recognize the environmental sensitivities of the land in development, you ought to recognize that," said Kate Hanley, former chair of the Board of Supervisors, who recognized the 20th anniversary of the downzoning during her term in office in 2002. "Certainly the low-density development in the Occoquan set a pattern of low density that made it easier to uphold the downzoning of the Occoquan.
"[It] is one of those success stories of development with an eye for protection."
The natural beauty of the area caught Cole's eye as he was circling it in the air in the early 1970s. An Army pilot, Cole was getting in some hours in his helicopter when he first saw the area. "I went to a real estate agent I know and said, 'What is this beautiful area out here?'" said Cole.
He bought land in the Shadowwalk community in 1972, for $5,000 an acre, and has lived there ever since.
What the low-density development does for the Occoquan, said Cole, is immeasurable.
"There are fewer driveways, roofs, tennis courts, anything that puts a … surface on top of the soil. Then the soil can take the rain," he said.
John and Maxine Ringle have spent much of their time in Florida over the past decade but still maintain a home perched on the Occoquan Reservoir in the Cathedral Forest community. They enjoy traveling, and while health concerns pushed back the date of presentation of the official proclamation, July 26 was officially "John D. Ringle and Maxine Ringle Day" in Fairfax County. The ceremony, which took place on Oct. 6, caught John by surprise.
"It made any additional money I might have made by doing 1-acre lots totally insignificant," he said.