HIS SHOCK OF blond hair and small feet rapping along the floating dock, Bryce Gilstrap, 3, picks apart a hamburger bun and feeds the swarming geese and ducks on the lake. His mother, Sarah Gilstrap, is thin and attractive, watching attentively on a warm October afternoon last week. It's a serene setting: Sailboats dot the shoreline, and freshly fallen leaves stir on the bike trails and the rustic decks of The Boathouse restaurant and offices that make up Sunday Park.
This is the communal heart of Brandermill in western Chesterfield County. Gilstrap says she and her husband, Craig, were married under the arbor just up the shore, overlooking the water, in April 2002. “Mostly, we wanted an outdoor wedding,” she says, smiling. “We had it at sunset.”
The Gilstraps might have melded perfectly into the marketing brochures of Brandermill's early visionaries. Developers pitched the residential community as a tranquil, back-to-nature suburban oasis. When it opened in 1974, the subdivision was in the hinterlands, more than 20 miles from Richmond high-rises. Houses were designed to blend with nature on a massive, 7,000-acre tract surrounding the 1,700-acre Swift Creek Reservoir. There was a marina, golf course, pools, office parks, a restaurant and a church nestled in the woods, connected by walking and biking trails. Early advertising campaigns likened Brandermill to a resort, a forested getaway just outside the city limits. “Brandermill could be a fine resort if it wasn't such a great place to live,” real estate brochures boasted.
It was everything the Gilstraps wanted in a neighborhood. Sarah and Craig moved into Brandermill in 2000, eager to start a family. But by 2004 they'd outgrown their “teeny, tiny house,” Sarah says. And then there were the covenants and annual fees that came with living in Chesterfield's first planned community, which now costs $417.28 a year. The homeowners' association, charged with enforcing the covenants, became too much. “The fees kind of kept going up and up,” Sarah says. “We were going to move somewhere where we didn't have to pay the dues.”
The Gilstraps left in 2004. They found a bigger house in the Loch Braemar subdivision at Providence and Courthouse roads, also in Chesterfield, lined with traditional two-story Colonial-style houses. There's a pool, but not much else, so Sarah often returns to Sunday Park, where her two children, Bryce and Dylan, 7, can feed the geese and ducks.
After moving out of Brandermill in 2004, Sarah Gilstrap and her son Bryce, 3, often return to Sunday Park to feed the ducks and geese.THE GILSTRAPS POSE a dilemma of sorts for Brandermill, which struggles to retain residents and lure in new ones as the community ages. Its earlier housing designs, many contemporary homes with rectangular and triangular features, are a tougher sell than newer cookie-cutter Colonials and McMansions in surrounding subdivisions.
Nestling in the woods also has its drawbacks. Initially designed and developed by the Sea Pines Co. of Hilton Head Island, S.C., blending with the natural environment was a guiding tenet. There were no lawns; houses were sited to blend with the trees and topography. Houses often weren't visible from the street, a relatively new concept in the 1970s that the developers borrowed from similar residential communities in Reston and Columbia, Md. “In fact, the house (concept, form, shape, and dimensions) should be derived from the slope of the land, location of the trees, and desired views,” Brandermill's original environmental and design guidelines specify: “Buildings should not be treated as architectural entities dropped onto their sites, but rather as carefully planned additions to their natural settings.”
Covenant restrictions reinforced this philosophy. Homeowners weren't allowed to remove trees from their properties — not even dead or fallen ones — unless they posed a physical threat to the house. (Dead pine trees were the exception, because they “may lead to an increase in the Southern Pine Bark Beetle population which would eventually destroy healthy pines,” the guidelines note.)
After about 30 years, however, some of the early houses appear over-run, even unkempt, by overgrowth. They're often more difficult to sell because they're older and lack the lawns and traditional curbside appeal that real estate agents covet. The houses and lots are smaller, most of them less than a half-acre, competing in a housing market that shifted toward larger McMansions in the 1990s.
Tom Jacobson, Chesterfield's former planning director and current director of community revitalization, has watched the change. During “the last 15 years, the big $300,000 to $500,000 house was the hot market. People were moving, getting up in age, and people said, ‘What's the maximum house I can get?'” he says. “Brandermill didn't offer that product.”
Brandermill also has been tagged, perhaps unfairly, as having an overbearing community association, especially in the last few years. This summer the Brandermill Community Association's board of directors made headlines when it approved a new mailbox design — from brown to black — and word got out that residents would need to purchase new mailboxes, at a minimum of $140, to ensure uniformity, even if they'd recently replaced their mailboxes in the old design. Some residents saw the requirement as unnecessary, particularly in tough economic times, and painted their boxes yellow in protest.
The board of directors has since gone on the defensive, saying it only approved the new design, and homeowners who purchased mailboxes in the last year would receive new ones free. Residents also may install the mailboxes themselves, so long as they meet new design criteria, which means they could conceivably install a new one more cheaply (the association's only listed mailbox vendor, mailboxesbyakins.com, charges $140 for the box and post; $155 with installation). No date has been set for when the new mailboxes must be installed, according to the community association website.
When-Dee and Andy Morrison, with their 3-year-old daughter, Olive, generally agree with Brandermill's covenants, just not the plan to force neighbors to install new mailboxes — at a cost of $140 to $155.The dust-up illustrates a growing conflict for Brandermill, which enacted a new master plan to address the community's aging amenities and housing stock in March 2009. To keep pace with newer surrounding communities such as Hampton Park and Charter Colony, the plan offers a road map — sprucing up the pools, improving signage, resurfacing the bike trails — but the improvements cost money. The mailbox protest at the very least suggests that pushing through new initiatives won't be easy.
To some, the controversy reveals how autocratic and out-of-touch the community association and its board have become. Andy and When-Dee Morrison, who live in Brandermill's Hungate Woods neighborhood, painted their mailbox yellow in mid-September and launched a Facebook page, Brandermill Underground, in the wake of the brouhaha. Andy Morrison says he likes having covenant enforcement, and that he and his wife readily agree with the goals of the master plan. They've lived in Brandermill since 2000 and moved into their current house in June 2008 — it's a well-maintained two-story Colonial with cedar siding, hardwood floors and a well-groomed yard. If they moved again they say they'd likely stay in the community.
“Our biggest complaint is that they don't enforce the covenants,” Andy Morrison says. “You can drive through some of the neighborhoods and it's like the ghetto.”
He readily added a bush to his front yard after getting cited by the covenant police — they had two bushes instead of the required three, he says. But the new mailboxes were approved without resident approval, the Morrisons protest. It's a burden for many in economic hard times, and many would be forced to needlessly replace already well-kept mailboxes. Andy Morrison notes that the neighbors who are protesting aren't covenant-offending homeowners. “You won't see a yellow mailbox in front of a shitty house,” he says.
When-Dee Morrison says the new design also disregards a Brandermill trademark — the new boxes won't include homeowners' names etched into the wooden posts, which made the neighborhood seem more intimate, friendlier. “We liked everybody's name on the mailboxes,” she says.
The controversy is casting a long shadow. At the Oct. 11 community association meeting, the board of directors grappled with a proposal to hike homeowners' fees to begin, among other things, implementing some of the master plan's capital improvements. They also debated whether the board should approve a 3-percent pay raise for the association's employees in 2011, tabling the issue. With assessments, fees and various rental income, the association proposes a $2.2 million budget for 2011.
Longtime resident Charlie Davis, who moved into Brandermill in 1975, likened a neighborhood protest to that of the tea party. “If you thought the mailbox issue was something,” he told the board of directors, “tangle with this one.”
Originally Brandermill's strict design guidelines called for homes to blend with the natural environment: rustic-colored contemporary houses nestled amid the trees, to give it the feel of a resort in the woods.THERE WAS A time when such controversies would have seemed unthinkable in Brandermill. In the 1980s it was elite Chesterfield, the community of choice south of the James River. A long-running joke in the county was that Brandermill residents always seemed to get what they wanted, from new schools to favorable long-distance rates. The community association had considerable clout with the Board of Supervisors. The Richmond News Leader ran a story about the phenomenon in 1984:
Certainly, it's not your ordinary subdivision. Brandermill residents can have full-course meals delivered to their doors by the Brandermill restaurant. After a recent benefit marathon, thirsty runners in Brandermill didn't drink from the nearest garden hose; they were treated to Perrier water. Some children ride to Brandermill's day-care center in a limousine.
Brandermill was first envisioned by Angus Powell, brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. of Richmond, in the 1960s. The family owned a timber company and in the 1960s began plans to flood about 700 acres in a giant swath of land to create a lake. The county, which at the time was buying its water from Richmond, worked with Powell's company to expand the lake to 1,700 acres. The new reservoir would become Chesterfield's main water supply: It was cheaper, saving taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars a year. And the lake afforded great opportunity: Powell contracted with a development company from Jacksonville, Fla., to develop a residential community around it.
Plans called for 7,000 homes and apartments on 7,000 acres, and ultimately 25,000 people. There would also be extensive commercial development, as well: high-rises along the waterfront, an airstrip, a regional mall, even talks with the recently merged Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia about building a university campus — Virginia Commonwealth University — in Brandermill.
In 1973 the property was sold to Sea Pines, which scaled back the commercial aspects significantly. Gary Fenchuk, who was part of Sea Pines' Brandermill development team, remembers seeing the original plans and thinking they were “way too urban.” Fenchuck, now president of East West Communities, says Brandermill was recast as more of a resort community.
Initially called Swift Creek, it was Chesterfield's first large-scale subdivision. It was meticulously planned and construction was expensive — houses were close together, blended with the environment, and there was a dictum to remove as few trees as possible. While commercial development was still part of the plan, Brandermill was first and foremost a residential community. And it was far from the city limits. Franny Powell, who was working at Sea Pines in South Carolina in the early 1970s, moved to Chesterfield in September 1974 as part of the Brandermill development team. (She later married Angus Powell's son, Bryce.)
“People said, ‘You're crazy, it's way too far out,'” Powell recalls. “There was absolutely nothing but the 360 truck stop between Brandermill and Chippenham. There was just a change in the air.”
The concept was a return to nature, and the design principles were to preserve open land as much as possible in a community where residents could live, work and play.
“It was the first suburban community [in Chesterfield] that truly fit in with the idea of what a suburb should be, or living in the country should be,” says Mort Gulak, professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The concept had come a long way. The first suburbs were known as “picturesque enclaves,” and began cropping up in the 1850s outside of major cities. In response to the social isolation experienced by families living in the borderlands, the first suburbs attempted to meld housing with nature, near parks and cemeteries, creating neighborhoods among the trees and hills.
Manufactured housing emerged in the early 1900s, and by the 1950s giant cookie-cutter subdivisions started to sprout. They were mass-produced houses on empty lots on the outskirts of major cities, the most famous of which was constructed by Levitt and Sons, which built four Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. The houses were bland and close together, and provided new, often transitional housing to soldiers returning from World War II.
“The traditional way of suburbs was to cut down all the trees. Levittown, that was the beginning of that type of development,” Gulak says. “It's just easier to cut all the trees down, lay out the property.”
Bob Kirksey moved to Brandermill in 1981, into his current house on Birnam Woods Road in 1985, and watched the community explode from laid-back neighborhood to fast-paced suburbia. He taped yellow cardboard over his mailbox to protest the community association's new mailbox design.By the late 1960s, a wave of environmentalism was washing over the country. People wanted their trees back. Brandermill, in turn, answered the call.
“They billed themselves as California living in the woods,” recalls Bob Kirksey, who grew up in a house overlooking Byrd Park in Richmond. After graduating from VCU in the 1970s, he married and began looking for a home to raise a family. The Kirkseys moved to Brandermill in 1981.
At first it was serene, but within a few years the laid-back resort lifestyle gave way to rapid growth in the hinterlands. In 1985 he moved from his original contemporary home in Brandermill's Carriage Creek to a two-story Colonial in a newer Brandermill neighborhood, Birnam Woods. “We are in a very Colonial kind of two-story cookie-cutter,” he says. “There was no way to break those chains.”
While the residential community exploded in Brandermill, it sparked other developments. Woodlake came in the 1980s, promising more traditional houses on lots with lawns, and other subdivisions cropped up along Hull Street Road, quickly turning Chesterfield into one of the fastest-growing residential communities in the state. But the large-scale commercial development never came to Brandermill. The high-rises didn't materialize. There was no airstrip or university.
Much of that had to do with its isolation. Plans for state Route 288, which started in the 1960s, and an extension of Powhite Parkway, wouldn't come until much later. And the original vision of Brandermill, houses communing with nature, quickly gave way to more traditional designs — houses with lawns and fewer trees.
“What's happened over the years with developers is that they've gone back from the '50s and '70s, they've gone from building small subdivisions to growing to the point now where they are big corporations,” Gulak says. “That puts a lot of pressure to sell more homes and make a profit. They don't want to take chances anymore.”
The failure of Brandermill to reach its full vision — today there are just under 4,000 homes and 13,000 residents, about half the size of the original plan — can be pinned to shifting tastes in the housing market, and the explosion of car-centered suburbs.
Market Square, Brandermill's first shopping center at the intersection of Hull Street and Old Hundred roads, is a glaring example of how the design concept didn't mesh with market demands. Set low off the road and behind the trees, it's nearly invisible to passing motorists. What originally started as a shopping center — Fenchuk says early plans called for a regional mall on the site — is now a mix of small shops, nail and hair salons, dog boutiques and offices. After Safeway left in the early 1990s, Ukrop's Super Markets and Food Lion turned down the location, deciding to locate farther west in more visible shopping centers, with more land and larger parking lots.
BRANDERMILL'S FUTURE REMAINS cloudy. It's filled with older housing stock and experiencing the first symptoms of blight in some sections. About 10 percent of its houses are rental properties. The Brandermill Inn is in foreclosure.
Elizabeth Hart Jones, a real estate agent who lives in a contemporary house on Old Fox Trail that features four rustic buildings interconnected with walkways and large see-through windows, says selling Brandermill is tough these days. So many of her clients want something traditional, something newer. They ask her about shrink-swell soil — which cracks foundations and caused a community-wide panic in 1991 — and they hear about the neighborhood fights with the community association. She says the yellow mailboxes also don't help.
Elizabeth Hart Jones, a real estate agent, moved into Brandermill in 2002. She lives in one of the contemporary houses built in 1980, on a wooded lot with no lawn. She says homebuyers often overlook Brandermill today.“They don't realize all that translates to is ‘Brandermill is awful,'” she says of the neighborhood protestors. “That kind of thing does make it harder to sell Brandermill.”
Jane Pritz, Brandermill's community manager, says the bad press over the yellow mailboxes shouldn't deter prospective buyers. Such fights are bound to crop up, she says. “I think you can say that about any planned community,” she says, adding the caveat: “You should know going in — that's what you bought into.”
Ultimately, Chesterfield County's Jacobson says the covenants should be assuring to new homeowners. After the housing collapse of the last two years, the market is likely to shift away from oversized homes and big mortgages. And when you compare Brandermill — it has the lake, the walking trails, the community cohesiveness — with other surrounding developments, it should remain competitive.
Brandermill also provides an opportunity to study suburban history, and learn from it.
“I think it's a great history story of development — and it didn't last very long,” says Gulak, the planning professor. “It was part of the time, and other factors like marketing, and what people were told they wanted in a suburban house … had an effect.” Gulak says the main selling points of Brandermill didn't lead to copycat developments, but if it had, who knows? If other developers had adopted Brandermill's design philosophies, the region's suburbs might today offer something more unique, something other than sprawling cookie-cutter subdivisions.
“We don't know what it would have evolved into,” Gulak says.
Brandermill's ability to recast itself, Jacobson says, and deal with aging housing stock will be critical to the county's future.
“The past has been growth, growth, growth,” Jacobson says of Chesterfield. “The future is how we sustain our older communities, and Brandermill is a microcosm of that. How well they do — how well we do — is going to set the trend for what this community is going to be like in the future.”