What purpose does a gate serve but to limit access? Depending on the setting, a gate can forbid freedom or promise a new horizon. Or, if you live in Keswick, Glenmore, Lake Monticello or any of the ersatz gated subdivisions around Charlottesville, a gate can rise as a shining symbol of such lifestyle amenities as electronic surveillance devices, swimming pool complexes, clubhouses and steeply rising property values. From the outside, the gates send a hearty message of “Do Not Enter.” From the inside, they signal a distinctive brand of “community.”
But whereas other parts of the country have experienced a rush on wrought iron, so to speak, as concerns about crime and privacy drive families out of the cities and into the suburbs, Charlottesville has become home to hundreds of sequestered houses apparently for different reasons.
“We have a giant bubble over our community,” says Charlottesville Albemarle Association of Realtors President Pat Jensen. “With so many beautiful and safe places to live, gated communities simply don’t mean the same thing here as they do in other parts of the country.”
Still, Charlottesville’s gated enclaves share at least one feature with similar neighborhoods around the United States: They practically guarantee an above-average return on investment. Whether it’s the presumed prestige factor or an epidemic of golf enthusiasm, houses in places like Keswick appreciate at a rate that observers say is greater than the County’s annual 7 percent norm.
Not surprisingly, gated communities inspire vehement opposition, too, among those who believe they promote isolation and homogeneity, not to mention an “us”-and-“them” mentality.
Down and out in Fluvanna County
The oldest gated community in our area, Fluvanna’s Lake Monticello, which was built in 1970, doesn’t seem to be constructed on the Who’s Who foundation of other gated enclaves. With more than 3,500 acres filled with 4,500 homesites, the local price of the fortress mentality, in this neighborhood at least, is less than one might think—$75,000 to $500,000, according to Greg Slater, a manager at Lake Monticello. (Lake Monticello also offers three areas that are not gated for those who would prefer access to the golf, pool, lake and clubhouse facilities without the manned porthole experience.)
And, claims Slater, that budget price can buy individuality. “We have no cookie-cutter homes here,” he says.
Close enough to Charlottesville to be convenient but far enough away to be more affordable, Lake Monticello, says Jensen, is a place where “you can simply buy more house for your money than in the rest of Albemarle.”
Not only that, but for an annual owners association fee of $490, you buy access to a 352-acre man-made lake with more than 22 miles of lake shoreline for swimming, fishing and boating; an 18-hole championship golf course; three clubhouse eateries ranging from formal to casual; private campgrounds; tennis courts; and several playing fields. Lake Monticello even has its own closed-circuit informational TV channel. In a mini town like that, why (aside from earning a living) would anyone want to venture past the gate?
For at least one resident, however, a man originally from New Hampshire who would be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity, neither the amenities nor the gate were the appeal. He retired to Lake Monticello six years ago after buying his house sight unseen, he says, because “the biggest draw was the reasonable price.”
“I rarely even use the lake, golf course or pool,” he says.
Jeane Rashap and her husband moved to Lake Monticello about nine months ago from a home they rented near Charlottesville’s Rugby Road. Although they loved living in the City, when it came time to buy, there was just nowhere else they could find a 2,700-square-foot home for around $200,000. “The golf has been nice for my husband,” says Rashap, “but we wouldn’t have chosen Lake Monticello if we’d found something affordable somewhere else.”
Privilege or necessity
Glenmore, the 10-year-old gated colony in Albemarle, east of Charlottesville and on the other end of the pricing spectrum, draws its residents not out of affordability (prices for houses can soar past $1 million), but sheer exclusivity. And nearby Keswick, considered one of the area’s most elite communities, offers 300 homes ranging in size from 1,200 to 10,000 square feet at prices that can be upwards of $4 million.
Evidently, there’s something of value to keep secure behind those gates.
“With all that’s going on in the news today,” says Jeff Gaffney, the supervising broker for the section of Real Estate III that manages Glenmore, “people are looking for that extra safety factor.” Like Lake Monticello, Glenmore has a manned front gate. The gatekeeper will let you pass only if you have been authorized to enter by a resident. Also, all entrances are equipped with security cameras that monitor which cars pass through.
Still, Jensen figures that what really lures people to Glenmore and Keswick are the special amenities like a championship golf course and an equestrian center. Translation: You might live in a glorified subdivision, but you’ve come a long way, baby.
At present, there are 500 residences in Glenmore, with developers hoping for a total of 800 to share what the promotional literature describes as “the beautifully laden emerald-green pastures, gentle knolls and rolling hills reminiscent of a Scottish landscape.” And besides the Platinum MasterCard aura and the manned front gate, something else fortifies Glenmore’s appeal—real estate values.
“When you’re looking at increased property values,” says Gaffney, “while all of Albemarle County has appreciated, Glenmore is at the top of the list.” With land values that have doubled in the last decade compared to the 8 percent increase of the county average, a pad in Glenmore has proven to be a good investment. One home that sold for $170,000 in 1993 recently sold again for $300,000. Another going for $500,000 in 1993 went for more than $750,000 this year. According to recent nationwide real estate studies, in fact, gated community-style housing can fetch anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 more than comparable non-gated housing.
State your business here, sir
Even where the lines of secluded turf are not drawn solely by wealth, the message to the public at large remains, “keep out.”
By the same token, however, Glenmore has been praised by some for creating “communal bonds” within the gates themselves. With pedestrian-friendly streets and public spaces like the clubhouse or fitness center, “It is so easy to meet other residents here,” says Gaffney. “It’s like stepping into a built-in social life.”
Tom Pace, who is the sales manager of Glenmore and a longtime resident, agrees. “One can get as involved or not involved as one wants,” says Pace. “It truly is a social lifestyle choice.”
Pace says his clan was the seventh family to move into Glenmore, and, although he has moved three different times within the community, he has never left.
Still, where insiders see “community,” critics on the other side of the gate see an elitist “members only” club.
Dave Norris, chair of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, believes gates serve only one of two purposes—to keep people in or out. Gates can wall off very poor communities and very wealthy communities, all the while eliminating the public spaces in which different social classes might combine. Typical melting pots such as Darden Towe Park or Fridays After Five have been replaced by private soccer fields within the gates and black-tie events at the clubhouse.
“One of the main reasons a neighborhood such as Belmont works so well,” says Norris, “is you have a mix there—an integration of poor people, middle class people, middle-upper class people, residential and commercial retail. Walled-off enclaves removed from services and others kinds of people just don’t work.”
Ron Higgins, the City’s planning manager, also maintains that a city needs to be connected, especially a smaller city such as Charlottesville, which holds dear the value of congruity. “As a 30-year resident of the City,” says Higgins, “I imagine gated communities have their place; it just seems more isolated.”
Don’t fence me in
For some people, of course, isolation is exactly the point.
“The gate is definitely a selling feature,” says Slater. “It is nice when not just anyone can drive up on your property at any given time.”
“We have people like [UVA basketball and football coaches] Pete Gillen and Al Groh living in our community,” says Real Estate III’s Gaffney, “and they don’t want just anyone walking up to their front door.”
Yet there are those occasions when the rules and regulations that are the price of admission to the box seats can be real downers. “Sometimes these communities with their homeowners associations,” says Jensen, “can be limiting to people’s freedom of choice.” Want to stack wood in front of your house? Well, that’s just too bad if you live in Lake Monticello. You can’t.
One Lake Monticello resident (who also refused to have her name published) says she came home one day to a “citation” for verboten pipes exposed in her yard. “We are unsure if the complaint came from a neighbor, or from the owners association,” she says, “but either way, there are times when we really have issues with all the rules.”
Lake Monticello is also the only gated community in the area to employ a private police force, a measure often too expensive for other communities, which choose an electronic gate system instead. The Lake Monticello Police Department, on the lookout for any suspicious elements in this forest by the lake, make alien infiltration difficult, unless of course you are the Domino’s delivery guy, the Lake Monticello Fire Department or a construction vendor—these folks have bar codes to get in at any time.
“The gates can be irritating, especially if they aren’t working correctly,” says Lake Monticello resident Rashap, “but they serve their purpose—to protect the residents and their amenities.”
Go jump in a lake—but only if you’ve paid your dues
There’s no hiding the fact that Lake Monticello residents, like others in gated communities, want their amenities to remain their amenities. “The gates are necessary for the people paying dues,” says Slater.
The gate at Glenmore was built for $200,000, and yearly maintenance is another $170,000, which includes not only salaries for guards, managers and staff, but electricity and computers, as well. “Although it’s certainly not fool proof, it’s worth it for the peace of mind it gives people,” says Gaffney.
Again, some observers see the situation differently. A gate does not a great community make. As Jensen points out, Charlottesville has plenty of historic and stately areas such as Ivy, Park Street and Rugby Road. Some area residents occupy both worlds. Developments such as Bellair, Farmington, Ednam, Dunlora and Forest Lakes have many of the makings of a gated community, minus the uniformed man (or bar code) raising the gate.
Dunlora, for example, which is fronted by a large brick entrance and a gate-like aura, has some of the same amenities as Glenmore (minus the ACC coaches): community swimming pools, clubhouses, annual dues and basic rules and regulations. But, in theory, anyone could drive through.
In the end however, for whatever reason, communities such as Glenmore, Keswick and Lake Monticello succeed in attracting residents. Fluvanna County, still considered primarily rural, is now the second-fastest growing county in Virginia. With a population of 21,200, it has grown by more than 60 percent during the past decade. “Most of this growth is thanks to Lake Monticello,” says Slater.
Access and egress
Whether gated communities promote homogeneity or a secure environment, Gaffney advances the standard market-bearing rationale for their existence around here: If people didn’t want gated communities, then developers wouldn’t be building them. “It’s a ‘move up’-type market and people are choosing it left and right,” he says.
CRHA’s Norris, though, raises doubts about the health of gates for the community at large.
“These gated communities are just a form of ghettoization,” he says. “You’ve got ghettos for the poor and ghettos for the rich.” As an example, Norris points to a new fence, of sorts, at Westhaven, a low-income housing development in the neighborhood of 10th and Page streets. One side of Westhaven borders the rear entrances of West Main Street businesses, some of which have started to complain about graffiti and vandalism and responded with a new divider. “There’s a stairway that ends with a fence now,” says Norris, “just a further sign of the isolation of Westhaven.”
The fences might obstruct graffiti, but they’re roadblocks to progress, too, says Norris. “As long as both the rich ghettos and the poor ghettos remain isolated,” he says, “how can we ever broaden the community, embrace diversity?”
Pace, the Glenmore sales manager, maintains that his community is more than diverse. With residents of every age hailing from places like China, Hawaii, Canada and England and participating in local politics and schools and boards, Pace says it is wrong to think that the people of Glenmore have chosen to lock themselves out of society.
“Living in Glenmore, or any gated community for that matter,” says Pace, “is simply a lifestyle choice, that’s all. It has nothing to do with isolation whatsoever.”