Winter’s change to spring is tranquil at Burke’s Lake Barton. Gulls bob on the surface of the water, and the last leaves drift to the ground with a quiet rattle.
A little over a mile from the water’s edge, commuters whiz up and down the Fairfax County Parkway, past tidy shopping centers, churches and soccer fields.
In the big house on the hill, the offices of the Burke Centre Conservancy, those in charge of piloting the future for one of Northern Virginia’s largest planned communities see signs of spring ahead as well.
"The missing pieces for everything we’ve talked about for the past year can really begin to come together. The staff in place is a good staff now," said Greg Smith, president of the Board of Trustees for the Conservancy, a two-pronged quasi-government that runs the community.
Built beginning in 1976, the community of Burke Centre — composed of 5,862 residences on over 1,700 acres — is approaching its 30th anniversary in less than two years. The past 18 months have seen both financial and personnel turmoil within the fabric of the Conservancy, but in many ways the quality of life has never been better.
Located in a pocket of Fairfax County between the Fairfax County Parkway and Burke Lake Road, Burke Centre is as robust and stable economically as anywhere in the state of Virginia. In a recent study by the American City Business Journal, Burke was rated as the third least stressful place to live socio-economically among cities with 50-99,000 residents. Among the factors considered by the study were percentages of vacant homes, percentage of single-parent households and percentage of household incomes below $25,000.
What makes Burke Centre distinctive from its other financially stable brethren in the metropolitan D.C. area is the preservation of trees and open space that is blended in with the residential development.
"One of the best things ... is that in my townhouse community, I can’t see the houses behind me in the spring and summer because of the trees that grow. It creates a fantastic community in which to live," said Smith, who moved to Burke Centre in 1990 after working with the U.S. Marines in Okinawa, Japan.
The year 2004 left a bit of a black eye on the Conservancy, as the year opened with then-executive Tom Wade filing a budget document that showed the association would be $710,000 dollars in the red for the year. The shortfall was attributed to overtime and cleanup resulting from Hurricane Isabel in the fall of 2003, but the problems went deeper than that. The Conservancy's reserve fund, which is used for just such situations, was dwindling, and residents were asked to pay $25 a quarter more in assessments for the final three quarters of 2004 to balance the budget. Even so, the ship wasn't finally righted until the hiring of Patrick Gloyd as the new executive director in early December 2004.
"When you have a board of seven people, you have ideas of how it should be run, but you don’t necessarily have a clear idea of the best way for it to run," said Smith, who represents the Woods neighborhood on the Board of Trustees. "I think having the right guy in there works really well."
A FORMER director of operations for a management firm in Maryland, Gloyd took over as the Conservancy’s chief administrative officer at the culmination of a very unsettled six months. In May 2004, the Board voted not to renew Wade's contract, which expired in September. When he left office, it created a void at the top which lasted for three months.
The financial and personnel troubles of 2004 were, according to some trustees, a clear example of what happens when those in charge in Burke Centre operate in a vacuum.
"It’s a slippery slope you lead when nobody’s watching the trustees, and nobody’s watching the executive director, a scary scenario. And we had that last year," said Luanne Smith, an at-large member of the Board. A member of the Board intermittently since 1989, Luanne Smith lived in Burke since 1982, and has strong feelings about the way the Conservancy works best. She came to Burke and was impressed by the natural beauty and the accessibility.
"When I first moved here, it was nature and community in harmony, it was a fresh community," Luanne Smith said. She moved away for four years, but returned in 1989 to find that Lake Barton now had a road partially surrounding it, and the Trustees had plans to pave all the way around, a decision that did not sit well with her neighbors either.
"I looked like it was less of a well-kept community," Luanne Smith said. "I thought, ‘What can I do?’ My neighbors were saying the same thing."
Burke Centre is governed by a covenant, a fat document that sets down the rules and regulations by which the association and its members must operate. The whole of Burke Centre is divided into five neighborhoods — Oaks, Landings, Commons, Landings and Ponds — and subdivided into 65 clusters, the basic building block of community within Burke Centre. Each neighborhood elects annually a Trustee to serve on the Conservancy Board and represent the voice of his or her constituents. Neighborhood council meetings take place each month, with a representative from each cluster attending.
"I didn’t know anything about the cluster-committee system, but once I did it was a night-and-day change, because then I had power to change things," Luanne Smith said. "If I could convey anything to members of the community, it’s that they have the power to do things."
And that’s where Luanne Smith’s passion lies — in keeping the trustees accountable, in making sure all the members of her Oaks community’s clusters know they can participate in the government of the neighborhood in which they live.
"I see my role as a neighborhood trustee to contact these folks, get them involved and have them network and come up with solutions to their own issues."
While Greg Smith said he doesn’t have such strong feelings about the importance of the cluster committees, he does believe that the checks and balances relationship between Board and paid staff is vital to the well-being of Burke Centre.
"I think it’s important to get things done in your cluster, but I don’t think it’s critical for the way Burke Centre is operated," he said. What both Smiths agree upon, however, is that Burke Centre’s guidelines encourage citizen involvement.
"People get as involved as they want. I find that often is somebody wants something, they will get involved," said Greg Smith.
AS A NEARLY 30-year-old community, however, another key component of the quality of life of Burke Centre — the physical appearance of many of its common buildings — is approaching a crucial threshold. Thanks to a freak hailstorm in the 1990s — which meant many homeowners replaced roofs and siding earlier than they might have under ordinary circumstances — and the standards of the Conservancy’s Architectural Review Board, most of the homes within Burke Centre are well-maintained and structurally sound. In many cases, however, the same cannot be said for common buildings, most notably the five community centers which serve as meeting places for each of the neighborhoods. It’s a problem that has cropped up in the past five years and will become more notable in the next decade. To that end, the Board recommended a new reserve study that would definitively map out the future course of action for upkeep of common areas, especially community centers.
Each year, a portion of the Conservancy budget is stashed away in a $3.2 million reserve fund, to be used for annual upkeep of trails, pools, tennis courts and other common areas. Until this year, the amount saved was $280,000 per year. That wasn’t enough, for two reasons, according to Gloyd. The reserves weren’t enough to pay for this type of upkeep annually, which led to the well of reserve money slowly drying up. Unchecked, this process would drain the reserve fund dry by the middle of next decade. With that in mind, the Budget and Finance Committee suggested hiking the reserve contribution to $400,000 per year.
"There was a train wreck coming, not tomorrow, but in the foreseeable future, unless they made a change," said Gloyd. "They made the right decision." The problem also stemmed from the fact that, while most homeowners associations conduct reserve studies every three years, with a one-year update recommended, Burke Centre hadn’t conducted one since 1997. The study, which was completed last month, has borne out this increase. The findings by Virginia firm Mason and Mason recommended $750,000 worth of reserve improvements this year. That is in addition to the money needed for the $1.6 million renovation and expansion to the Woods Community Center. One of Burke Centre’s most historic buildings, the center is a former homestead dating from the 1760s. The Board voted earlier this year to recommend the refurbishment with the hopes of using the building as a small events center for wine tastings, concerts and the like. The study also mapped 21 miles of trails throughout Burke Centre and recommended which sections needed to be replaced.
"In seven years, a pathway can change a lot," said Gloyd.
THE COST of funding the reserves and other regular maintenance isn’t cheap. Operating with a $3.9 million budget for the FY 2005, the Conservancy generates $3.1 million of that revenue through its assessments at the general and cluster level. This money is used for 80 percent of the association’s expenses, which means a proper assessment level is crucial for making sure the Conservancy makes budget each year. An expected shortfall in 2004 meant that the special assessment had to be levied. The Budget and Finance Committee and the Board were savvy to this change, and hiked the assessment to $113 per quarter for 2005. After several years of minimal increases in the assessment, it was a matter of bringing it back in line with expenses across the board. Just as he believes it is the task of the Conservancy staff to tidy up the physical appearance of Burke Centre, Gloyd said he will begin to work on tidying up the financial situation, working on trimming costs so the assessment at least remains consistent with the rise in inflation. One immediate change will be changing the format of the monthly newsletter, the Conservator, to newsprint, which will save $22,000 a year.
"We’re beginning to look at these things, and there will be more that come along. When that process is done, it will determine where the dues go. Can you afford to keep dues the same, or have you found enough savings to reduce them?" said Gloyd.
Another major project to come will be the examination of the consistency of services received for dues paid on the part of residents of varying clusters. Currently, certain clusters, such as those on Oak Leather Drive, pay more than $210 quarterly for the general assessment, plus contract services, snow removal and other services. In some cases, said Luanne Smith, issues like open space maintenance fall through the cracks, leaving people confused about what they are getting for their assessment.
"We should find a way to give them the services they need," she said.
In the Landings community, some condominium residents are managed additionally by private management companies, who also require certain fees. In that case, they don’t receive many of the services that their assessment should go to cover. To that end, a Condominium Rights Task Force will soon be created to look at ways in which the fees paid by residents there can be streamlined.
The goal, said Gloyd, is standardizing amenities across the board, which can be done through establishing clear cluster boundaries, and by making sure uniformity exists across Burke Centre in terms of amenities.
"I think that will help answer the question of ‘What do my dues go toward?’" he said. "It used to be they allowed clusters to select what level of service they wanted, from a menu. But now there’s a move toward standardization, and I think that’s the way it should be. If you move toward the a la carte method, you give people the ability to opt out of services, and that may affect curb appeal."
WITH BURKE CENTRE being a planned community from its inception, it has been able to maintain strict restrictions on the level of commercial and retail development within its boundaries. Certain retailers, like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s, serve as anchors within shopping centers, but the majority of Burke Centre’s space is devoted to perpetuating the credo of its developers: "nature and community in harmony." The Planned Development Community (PDC) status Burke Centre enjoys in the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan ensures that massive re-development won’t happen. So, with maximum buildout in Burke Centre virtually achieved, the goal for the immediate future, said those on the Board, is to take care of what the Conservancy does have — community.
"We resemble a town in many respects, and a place where people like to have roots," said Luanne Smith. "That’s what I’d like to have — back to the future, where you’re going back and that’s how you’d like your future to be. Burke Centre was such a cohesive area, and that’s what I think we always need to have as a focus."
While literally incorporating and becoming a town would take a majority vote to dissolve the homeowners association — highly unlikely in the near future — assuming many of the roles of a town, such as sponsoring Boy Scout troops, holding its annual Fall Festival and Easter Egg Hunt, are ways in which Burke Centre can fulfill that role in the life of its residents.
"What I think works best is when people think of it like their community. Homeowners associations conjure up all kinds of negative images, but when you think of it as a community, it kind of transcends all those things," said Gloyd.
Having weathered a recent stormy period, Burke Centre can now focus on improving the quality of life for its residents.
"We’re a bigger community now, but we’re not going to ever expand. We have to do things that make us competitive through the community-building aspect," said Luanne Smith. "Without those things, we have a cold, sterile community."