Country preserves

Country preserves

But in the case of Whitley’s Garden Gate Farm subdivision in North Garden, the statement’s not just a throwaway. That’s because along with the three-car garage, vinyl siding and first-floor master suite that comes with your neo-colonial on Garden Gate Court, you get a warm and friendly pseudo-grandpa. That would be Whitley, who lives with his wife Marilyn just up the hill on the site of the old farm house.

"I don’t build houses, I build homes," says 80-year-old Earl Whitley. Typically, a statement like that coming from the mouth of a developer is groan-inducing.

Whitley purchased the 115-acre farm site in 1993, looking to retire from development work in Northern Virginia and Annapolis, Maryland. He subdivided the land in 1996 and built one house a year for a total of eight. He dedicated the remaining 97 acres to rural preservation land where he and Marilyn refurbished the existing double-wide into a modest Cape Cod and turned the site, with its stunning views of Gay Mountain and lovely little pond, into a family compound for their six children and nine grandchildren—complete with a playground of walking trails for the subdivision’s residents. The pond, near a scenic sitting spot that Marilyn has dubbed "kissing rock" (for the obvious reasons, as Earl’s blushing at this utterance reveals) is open for frolicking to the neighborhood’s kids and dogs, all of whom often can be seen taking nightly strolls around the Whitleys’ property.

And if that doesn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy about shelling out more than half a million dollars to live 16 miles south of Charlottesville, the fact that the Whitleys "pray over each house" and welcome the neighbors to regular picnics, traveling dinner parties and a monthly Bible study just might make you believe that real country living with all its good neighborliness is possible in North Garden—even without back-breaking country-type work (the Whitleys say all of Garden Gate Farm’s residents are employed in Charlottesville.)

The farm culture of rural Albemarle persists in North Garden; not coincidentally, homes for sale there are scarce.

Not that actual agrarian labor doesn’t still exist in North Garden. In fact, Garden Gate Farm is one of only two existing suburban subdivisions in this community. Southern Hills is the other and has similar 2,000-2,500-square-foot houses with farmhouse-type front porches to play up the rural character of the modern homes and blend in with the rusty grain silos that dot the village’s landscape. Most of the rest of North Garden comprises large actual farms (including Kathryn Russell’s Majesty Farm, which C-VILLE profiled in "Food fights," July 10, 2007) and small, very modest ranch houses, many of whose inhabitants likely work at those farms. After all, North Garden is the annual home to the Albemarle County Fair (this year, July 31-August 5), which is the ultimate celebration of all things rural in this part of Central Virginia: veggies, livestock and beauty pageants. And North Garden is also home to Bundoran Farm, a unique 2,300-acre piece of land on which the Qroe Farm and Preservation Development company plans to develop residential homesites while preserving 80 percent of the land for rural and agricultural use.

Owing to North Garden not being designated in Albemarle County’s growth area, the town’s provincial character, sparse population and sprawling mountain vistas likely will remain for the foreseeable future. In other words, you need not worry about escaping to North Garden only to discover that a Home Depot and some super-dense tract housing has followed you there. Earl guesses that part of the reason North Garden will remain rural and free of crowded commercial and residential development is that water is very difficult to access in this part of the county.

The quintessential country store

Almost by law every picturesque rural town in America has a quirky local market that sells the necessities to townsfolk who otherwise have to drive miles and miles to the big city for supplies. In the case of the Crossroads Store on Plank Road, North Garden’s necessities definitely are covered: Gas, deli grub and homemade apple butter and fudge are easy grabs at the local shop that also serves as a welcome pit stop for travelers on the somewhat lonely stretch of Route 29S heading toward Lynchburg.

The Crossroads Store is aptly named; every North Gardener passes through it at one time or another.0

Though it’s gotten a decidedly spiffed-up look in the last 10 or so years (Marilyn Whitley remembers that you used to almost hit the store’s ice machine when you took the corner from Plank Road onto Route 29S), a stop in the store (which opened its original doors in 1820) is like a North Garden history lesson. The walls of the café are lined with old photos of Red Hill High School graduates from the 1950s and other old-time images as well as a yellowing 1997 Daily Progress article on John Grisham that is autographed by the man himself—Grisham owns a residence somewhere nearby.  

The rub

Before you start saying to yourself, "If it’s good enough for Grisham, it’s good enough for me," take note: The downside to North Garden—aside from being 20 minutes from the nearest movie theater or fine dining establishment (unless you count Dr Ho’s Humble Pie pizza shop, which you just might if you’re a North Gardener)—is that property is rarely for sale in this town, says RE/MAX Assured Properties broker Judy Savage. Savage has been selling real estate throughout Central Virginia for the last 20 years, and yet, she’s currently listing her first house in North Garden—the last home in the Garden Gate Farm subdivision.

If you are lucky enough to find a place to plant your roots in North Garden, however, make sure to say hi to Grandpa Earl Whitley, who is destined to become North Garden’s first mayor. And wish him well on his next birthday. You’ll know the date because he’ll do what he did last year: carve the number of his years on earth into his hillside with a zero-turn lawn mower. Now that’s something you won’t see in Belmont.

At a glance

Distance from Downtown: 16 miles

Distance from UVA Hospital: 14 miles

Elementary School: Red Hill   

Middle School: Walton   

High School: Monticello

Number of homes currently on market: 9

Price range of houses currently on market: $172,900-$1.4 million

Source: Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors