Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Living in Utopia

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In the 1960s, a number of planned communities were developed independently in different parts of the US. They were touted as Cities of the Future. One of the very first such developments was Reston, a city in Northern Virginia, 22 miles (40 kms) west of the White House in Washington DC. I discovered Reston late in 1980, and have lived there since January 1981.

Reston was the brainchild of one Robert E. Simon [RESton]. He cashed in his family's real estate holdings—which included Carnegie Hall in NYC—and bought the farmland on which Reston was built. Reston is largely an upscale community located in Fairfax County, one of the top socioeconomic areas in the country. Reston's population is about 60,000.

According to Wikipedia, utopia is, "the name of a fictional island, possessing a seemingly perfect socio-politico-legal system". So, is Reston a utopia? I'll give my take on that later.

Housing Types

Reston has three different styles of housing:

  1. Single-family homes: Typically these have a full basement, a ground level, and an upstairs, although a few older places are ranch-style; that is, they have no upstairs. These homes usually have a 2-car garage, an open front yard, and a fenced back yard. They vary considerably in size as do their parcels of land. While some are made with brick, many are timber-framed with siding.
  2. Town houses: These are built in clusters by a single developer. Although each unit has its own walls, adjacent units' walls literally touch. Many have a full basement, a ground level, and an upstairs, while others have two levels only. Most have patios, decks, and/or balconies. A few have 1- or 2-car garages. While some are made with brick, many are timber-framed with siding. Owners own their own land and collectively own the common areas.
  3. Condominiums (or condos): These are built in clusters by a single developer. Adjacent units share common walls, floors, and roofs. Most have one level only and are in buildings of up to five floors; however, some penthouse units occupy two levels. Most have small patios or balconies. Very few have garages. Almost all are made with brick. Owners own their own condo and collectively own the land and common areas; they also jointly own the shared walls, floors, and roofs. When rented out, a condo is often called an apartment.

Government and Services

Strictly speaking, Reston is not a city or even a township, as it is not incorporated. Instead, it is administered by a homeowners association, Reston Association (RA). As such, Reston has no mayor. Instead, it is run by a paid administrative group headed by a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and overseen by an unpaid board of directors.

Reston covers an area about 4x4 miles square. In that area are four lakes, all of which provide for resident and public activities such as boating and fishing. All developments are connected by an extensive system of paths that meander through the heavily forested area. There are numerous outdoor pools, an indoor pool, and many tennis courts. There are also parks, a nature center, and quite a few picnic and BBQ areas. All these things are maintained by RA, and although usage fees are charged for some activities, most things are covered by the $540/year fee that each property owner must pay RA.

All townhouse and condo clusters, and some groups of single-family homes, were built by a number of developers. One of the requirements of developing a cluster is to put in place a mini-government for that cluster. For example, my cluster, called Walden, consists of 52 townhouses. The Walden Cluster Association is a Virginia non-profit corporation having 52 members; that is, the townhouse owners. As such, the corporation has a set of Articles of Incorporation, officers, and bylaws. The cluster association is administered by an unpaid board of 6 directors who meet quarterly and serve 3-year terms, typically with two terms expiring each year. Directors are elected at the annual meeting of members. Here are the kinds of things a cluster association does:

  • Maintain the common grounds and shared facilities. In my cluster, these include a playground, a dock on the lake, tree work, landscaping, lawn mowing, and mailboxes
  • Reston does not provide garbage collection; instead, each cluster (or private house) arranges for that with one of a number of contractors
  • The roads within a cluster are privately owned by that cluster, whose association must maintain them
  • Having a private road means maintenance of private street lighting
  • Fairfax County plows county roads only. All other roads in Reston are private, so each cluster (or private house) arranges for snow plowing with one of a number of contractors

Of course, all of these things cost money, so a cluster association needs to have a budget and a way to raise money. It does so by levying an assessment fee on each owner. In my case, that's $265/quarter. Special assessments are possible, but better-run groups maintain sinking funds for big-ticket items such as road replacement. Condo associations typically charge much larger fees, as they cover more things, such as building insurance, maintenance of common entranceways, and perhaps even external appearance items (such as window replacement and painting) even for private areas. I know of a condo cluster that charges $350/month, which also includes gas used for cooking and hot water. (In that cluster, individual properties do not have their own gas meters; each is billed based on its floor area.)

Neighborhoods vs. Downtown

The initial model divided the city into neighborhoods, each anchored with a shopping center and support facilities. Several have senior citizens' housing facilities nearby with tunnels under roads to allow safe crossing. A bus service connects the neighborhoods, and the surrounding county.

Some 20 years after the city was created, a downtown area was built (called "Reston Town Center"), with some very expensive shopping areas, a large hotel and conference center, an outdoor ice-skating rink, a fountain, and multistory parking stations. The ground level of each high-rise building houses retail stores while upper floors house commercial office space.

Rules and Regulations

As is often the case in planned communities, thou shalt not do anything that might reduce the value of neighbors' homes or negatively impact their ability to enjoy living there. For example:

  • Each development has its own set of approved brick/paint colors, window styles, outdoor light fittings, and so on. If an owner wishes to change the external appearance of his property, he must notify his two immediate neighbors as well as his cluster association, and he must apply to the Design Review Board, which holds a public hearing/review.
  • Outdoor clotheslines are not permitted. (I'm reminded of a Chinese family that moved into my cluster and, soon after, had lots of laundry drying on their deck with some of it hanging on the side rails, just as I'd seen in Hong Kong. There was great concern among neighbors as to who would tell them that was not permitted!)
  • Motor homes, boats, and other recreational vehicles may not be stored permanently in one's yard or parked out front. Unless they are housed in a garage on the property, they must be stored (at an annual cost) in a yard in the forest, run by RA.
  • Residents may not perform any non-trivial maintenance of their vehicles in front of their houses.
  • There are four lakes, and boating and fishing are permitted; however, swimming is not. [That said, in a contradiction, the city's annual triathlon holds the swimming leg in one of these lakes.] Boats are limited to manual, wind, and electric propulsion only, with the power of any electric motor being severely limited. Boat lengths are limited to no more than about 15 feet.

From Reston's inception, all land had to be purchased from the city's developer, and that land had to be developed within a certain amount of time; otherwise, it had to be sold back to the developer. That is, land speculation was not permitted.

As a tongue-in-cheek statement, I've often characterized Reston as allowing one to breathe in on certain days and breathe out on others! However, if people don't like such rules, they should not move there. And to those residents who complain, it's not as if the rules were changed after they moved there. To be sure, living in a planned community can require compromises "for the good of the whole", so potential residents need to see if the pros outweigh the cons.


For the most part, residents drive themselves or car-pool. However, many use bus services, primarily to the nearest subway station. A new subway line terminating in Reston is scheduled to open sometime in 2013, which might ease some congestion. [It should also help maintain and even enhance property values in the city.]

One of the few toll roads in the greater Washington DC area passes right through Reston. In recent years, the tolls have increased each year to help pay for the new subway. That said, the toll road does allow ease of access to/from Reston. An adjacent set of lanes provides easy (and free) access to Washington Dulles International airport (IAD).

A 45-mile bike path passes through Reston; however, outside that Reston itself is not particularly bike-friendly.

So Who Lives There?

As I mentioned earlier, Reston is an up-scale area, catering for the middle- and upper-class. For example, one could easily spend a million dollars on a house there. That said an experiment was tried in various neighborhoods to have subsidized housing for marginalized families and individuals. My understanding is that caused a lot of problems, but some such neighborhoods fared better than did others.

Quite a few families have both parents working, and given that high school gets out early afternoon, that has led to a lot of "latch-key" kids being home (or out) on their own or with friends, sometimes getting into trouble.


So, is Reston a utopia? Not quite, but it has been very successful and it's an interesting experiment that is still evolving. During my 31 years there, there has been a steady, but static, stream of crimes and vandalism, including several drug-related murders and a serial rapist attacking women on the paths. There are also homeless people, a 70-bed residential shelter, and very active programs to help with food shortages.

Like many wealthy communities, people in Reston accumulate lots of stuff and have access to nice facilities, but many of them are so tied up in their daily commutes and overly busy lives that they don't make time to use their stuff or the facilities. In my case, I work from home most of the time and my schedule is flexible. I can take my canoe out on the lake, walk in the forest, or take a picnic to a park on any nice day that it suits. It's never crowded anywhere during the workweek, but it would be nice if more residents took advantage of the facilities for which they are already paying. C'est la vie.

Comments (5) -

  • Wally Paul

    2/20/2012 7:36:58 PM | Reply

    Reston sounds like another country to me after living in Millinocket for so long.  However, moving to Massachusetts has opened my eyes.  When I left Maine my annual taxes for our home was less than $1000 annually, which covered just about everything.  Fees may well be a more just way of financing a life style, but it seems that there might be an economy of scale to municipal taxes and services when it comes to paving and street lights.

  • Felicity Grosse

    2/21/2012 6:09:22 AM | Reply

    Hi Rex,

    Glad to hear that you've restocked your chocolate supplies.

    I am rather curious about how R.A. defines trivial and non trivial car maintenance...I'm imagining all sorts of ridiculous things.

    I still remember, kid from the Australian outback that I was when I first visited you in Reston some 26 years ago,  my shock that one could not hang out the washing on the good old Hills Hoist (a wonderful Australian invention to hang your laundry outside in the sunshine, on a rotating thingammyjig that moved around with the wind).

  • Rex Jaeschke

    4/25/2012 5:47:27 PM | Reply

    Felicity, re working on one's car out in public here in Reston: Changing a tire (tyre Down Under) or even the oil is fine, but pulling out your engine or transmission would not.

    Yes, I remember well the old Hill's Hoist. Ah, the good old days!

  • Samantha Holden

    6/12/2012 5:48:53 AM | Reply

    I'm interested to hear more about the crime levels of the surrounding areas and get your thoughts on what you think influences this. I've been thinking about moving to the US for a long time and areas like Reston sound perfect with their community based systems and control over individual impact on the community (changing house color for example).

    In the UK its more of a free for all on a day-to-day level (if someone wants to hang washing outside or paint their house they can and will) which I dont think is a good thing, but settlements of equivalent size don't have the same level of violent crime as over there. I was just wondering what your thoughts were on the influence of the surrounding area on the violent crime, or whether it is just because of the size of Reston?

  • Rex Jaeschke

    7/6/2012 4:36:47 PM | Reply

    Thanks for writing Samantha. It's been 5 weeks since I moved from Reston, to 5 acres out in the country, which I am enjoying so much that my 31 years living in that planned community is a fast-fading memory. Now, to your questions/comments.

    As I recall it, most of the crime in Reston was petty, and a lot of it involved bored "latch-key" kids whose parents were both working and who'd left them to their own devices weekdays from 1:30 pm (when high school gets out) until the parents get home from work (say 6 pm or later).

    The (limited) violent crime seemed to be drug and/or gang-related. To be sure, Reston is an up-scale (read, "expensive") city with respect to housing costs. However, various experiments were tried over the years to bring in a "broader cross section" of income levels via subsidized housing. In my humble opinion these experiments failed.

    As to local rules and zoning, Reston truly is an exception to the rule. Most of this kind of thing is controlled by local governments, and varies widely from one county/state to another. In general, it is a bad idea to extropolate from a small sampling and say "This is what America is like." If you are thinking of moving to the US, we have something for EVERYONE, from one extreme to the other and everything inbetween, depending on your tastes. That means that you have to do your homework (the internet helps greatly) to research life in a particlar town/area and whether or not it might suit your style.