A Day in the Country: The Plains

Keeping it simple is no small task in the modest town of The Plains.

There is a point, as I drive west on Route 66, away from the metropolitan counties of Arlington and Fairfax, where the last signs of urban development—the “big box” stores, strip malls and clusters of housing—disappear. As I cross Route 15 and leave Prince William County, quite suddenly, a mountain pass appears, sheathed in deep orange and brilliant yellow on this late Fall day, and the land goes from grey to green. There is nothing but the undisturbed foliage of distant mountains topped by a swath of blue sky, which triggers an unexpected sense of relief and pleasure, and I smile; at last, I am out of the big city.

In truth, the experience is, at best, a transitory one, for in every direction—north towards Leesburg, south to Warrenton and west to Front Royal—the parking lots, outlet malls and the grey expanse of concrete inevitably resume; a harbinger of what may well happen to this pristine land. But for the time being, this is the heart of Fauquier County where, at Exit 31, a visitor finds herself in an exquisite enclave of pure country in the small and unpretentious town center of The Plains, where no more than a dozen businesses—three delightful restaurants, a tea room, and a handful of one-of-a-kind shops and art galleries—welcome outsiders.

The Plains easily lives up to its name, not for its designation as a large area of flat land with few trees, which is breathtakingly true, but for its simplicity and charm in being so entirely unadorned. And it is a community that cares deeply about staying as it is, which has made it the poster child for a debate over land conservation. The Plains is a focal point of a crusade to protect Fauquier County’s remaining open spaces in the face of a surging population and the belief by many that land development is inevitable.

Unlike the more storied Northern Virginia towns, The Plains’ history is rather unremarkable; its way of life, understated. Population 400, the town comprises no more than a five-mile radius from the intersection of Main Street and Old Tavern Road.

“The Plains started out as nothing but a crossroads. Nobody said, ‘Let’s make a village,’” says Marci Markey, a resident of 38 years, and the author of War Without a Battle: The Plains, Virginia 1861-1965. “It was just going to be a farm outpost because the railroad stopped here,” adds Markey whose house in the center of town was once a blacksmith shop.

The whole area functioned as farmland as far back as the beginning of the 19th century. In 1831, there was just one house, and one store with a post office. The town was incorporated in 1910, yet remained sleepy well into the 1970s, aside from the regular rumbling of freight trains that still pass through the village several times a day and into the wee hours. It was occupied largely by laborers and farmhands, along with businesses that sold to the trade. It blossomed only relatively recently, in the past 25 years, into the friendly village it is today with tasteful shops and sumptuous, though few, eateries, as well as a glorious Farmers Market that visitors pass on the way into town off of Route 66.

But the unspoiled, open countryside also lent itself to fox hunting, thus drawing scores of riders and a generally wealthier set to the region. Prominent families, whose fortunes derived from banking, finance and the industrial boom at the turn of the 20th century, bought up large parcels of land within Fauquier County largely around The Plains and toward Upperville and Middleburg, nine miles north. Likewise, a contingent of wealthy New Yorkers would travel to Virginia’s hunting grounds by train on a regular basis. (The Orange County Hunt relocated to Fauquier from Orange County, New York, in the 1930s.) These families kept hunt boxes on their property then, which were small houses they would use for several days’ worth of foxhunting at a time.

The state of Virginia has the fifth largest horse population in the world, and Fauquier County, home to hundreds of the nation’s finest horse farms, has long been the heart of Virginia’s rich equestrian tradition, while serving as a premier training ground and destination for students and professional riders. The first fox hunts in America were hosted on the pastures of Fauquier County by Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord of Cameron, in 1747, and equestrian life has endured since then.

Of the foxhunters whose family called Fauquier County and The Plains home was the late Arthur W. “Nick” Arundel. His father, Russell, was a Pepsi Cola executive and an avid foxhunter. His mother, Marjorie Sale Arundel, who died in 2006 at the age of 104, was a conservationist renowned for her work with the World Wildlife Fund and as an environmentalist active in issues including the protection of forests, pesticide abuse and the nation’s energy policy.

The senior Arundels lived on Wildcat Mountain, which borders Warrenton and The Plains. Their son would add to the family’s considerable land holdings, eventually acquiring thousands of acres around the neighboring mountain to the north on Route 17 where he would bring up his own family of five children at Merry Oak Farm. Today, his widow, Margaret McElroy “Peggy” Arundel, lives at the farm she shared with her late husband for more than five decades. (Arundel passed away in February 2011 at the age of 83.)

In the late 1970s, Nick Arundel, then a retired U.S. Marine infantry paratroop officer in Korea and Vietnam, who had augmented the family fortune by building a media corporation, was concerned about the condition of the town, according to Mrs. Arundel. “He said, ‘I can’t have my hometown be like this. I want to be proud of my hometown,’” she explains.

The couple was inspired by the restoration going on in Charleston, South Carolina, at the time, and its business model in particular, which encouraged nonprofit corporations to acquire old buildings, fix them up and allow businesses to occupy the space rent-free for a time.

 “We fixed up the sidewalks, we fixed up the roads,” says Mrs. Arundel. The plan ultimately worked, though it took some time for businesses to get on their feet, she says. Today, the Arundel family does not own anything in The Plains, having sold the restored property at cost back to the people who had started businesses.

Arundel’s commitment to the rebirth of The Plains is something of a small-scale legend in the town, having resurrected what was described in the late 1960s as “a ghost town, slowly blowing away in the winds of time and decay,” according to D’Anne Evans and John K. Gott’s account of the town’s restoration in Trains Whistles and Hunting Horns: The History of The Plains, Virginia. At one point in the mid-1970s, Arundel purchased—in the name of his non-profit, Village Trust­—almost the entire center of The Plains, which then comprised mostly old abandoned buildings and vacant land.

In the center of town, there is a small grass commons—a “minipark” that was once a weed-covered parking lot. Today, it is known as Arundel Family Park, where a busy town bulletin board features village news. A painted sign that stands high in the park is among Nick Arundel’s signature touches. It is a tall wood totem of sorts with stacked arrows in every direction bearing the names of the world’s great cities and their distances from The Plains—among them, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Newmarket, England and Chantilly, France.

 “That sign denotes our town’s progress,” says Markey, adding that it stands as a reminder that even though it is now a prosperous village, the town will always humbly serve as it once did, as a crossroads for travelers.

From the porch at Forlano’s Market & Restaurant right next door to the park, diners can study the engaging sign. Today, the mood is upbeat at Forlano’s, as the few bar stools on the narrow front porch fill up with 20- and 30-somethings, seemingly delighted visitors looking for a late afternoon respite in the country. Forlano’s serves much of its fare in plastic baskets lined with parchment (not too different than hot dog day at school, save for what is inside). My group, which included two children, shared everything from these heavenly baskets, including an Angus Steak Wrap and a B.L.T. with caramelized onions. The Kennett Square Mushroom Soup lingers in my memory and is easily worth a regular pilgrimage.

Just off of Main Street and near the railroad tracks sits upscale restaurant, Girasole. Owners Lydia and Louis Patierno were so taken by the simple elegance of The Plains that they have been making a rather lengthy commute from Mount Vernon since opening Girasole—the Italian word for sunflower—in 2004. The airy, elegant stone building is a renovated Victorian farmhouse which once served as a grocery store. “We feel The Plains is very similar to Piedmont in Italy,” says Lydia Patierno. The restaurant is open only for dinner, except on Sundays when brunch is also offered. Visitors are enamored of Chef Louis Patierno’s agnolotti, a housemade spinach and ricotta ravioli with a delicate cream sauce. Out-of-the-ordinary dinner specials include lamb ravioli in curry sauce with golden raisins, while brunch combines Italian fare, such as salmon paglia et fieno in tomato cream sauce, with the standards a Virginia Hunt crowd might expect, such as classic eggs Benedict and Belgian waffles with fresh berries.

Another of The Plains’ popular food outposts is The Rail Stop restaurant, which Nick Arundel is credited with starting 30 years ago. Today, the Rail Stop is owned by accomplished chef Tom Kee. A relatively roomy, casual restaurant and bar, it takes its menu seriously by stepping up typical family-style meals with dishes like pecan waffles, chorizo hash, “housemade” potato chips, and homemade bread and pasta. The restaurant is also well known for having briefly been owned and operated by actor Robert Duvall, a native New Yorker, who for decades has made The Plains his home on a farm on the outskirts of town with his wife, Luciana.

“I think what you get a lot here are people coming out from the city on Saturday and Sunday because we are a mile off of 66,” says Linda Neel who, with husband Tom, a prominent painter in the area, owns Live an Artful Life, a gallery in the town’s center. The Plains lies geographically in between a lot of growing cities like Marshall, Middleburg, Warrenton, Haymarket and Gainesville, “but it’s not big enough to be hustle-bustle, and we get basically a lot of people passing through,” says Neel.   

Passers-through will find that the shops in The Plains are as much a pleasant surprise as its restaurants and worth the journey for finding unusual, one-of-a-kind housewares, furniture, garden statuary and artwork. On a late afternoon, the sun pours across the front patio of The Bittersweet Garden, where an array of garden statuary overflows onto Main Street. A two-foot statue of a seated Pan is turned outward toward shoppers, and a display of rather esoteric whale and walrus Christmas ornaments glitters in the shop window.

Down the road just a few hundred feet is the equally-inviting home furnishing shop Peyton’s Place, where on a warm Sunday afternoon, co-owners Peyton Slade and Kenny Sherman host tarot card readings by Pavlina Gogueva, a certified hypnostist and life coach who holds a masters in theology. Slade and Sherman own three buildings adjacent to their shop, which is a large converted mercantile building. Catering to clientele far beyond The Plains and Virginia, Sherman and Slade carry an array of antiques, consigned goods, art, sculpture, housewares and designer furnishings and offer a tasteful selection of 800 fabric swatches. Their interior collaborations are noteworthy enough to have been featured in House Beautiful and Country Living, yet the store is relaxed and unpretentious with its live birds housed in grand antique cages.

Slade lives around the corner from Peyton’s Place. Many residents, she explains, are not so local, and have other homes or travel extensively and do not face the day-to-day concerns of its citizens—issues such as encroaching development or land use. “We want to control the growth,” she says.

Linda and Tom Neel, who live just minutes from The Plains in Rectortown,  agree that “everybody is trying to learn a balancing act” when it comes to development in and around The Plains, and they allude, in part, to the burgeoning wine industry in Fauquier County. In just the past 10 years, the county has “exploded” with wineries, says Tom Neel. There are nearly 25, including one in The Plains. The long-time locals fear they could be an intrusion on their privacy by adding a different voice to the complex debate over the preservation of open space and on how the land, specifically the property where wineries are located and zoned for agricultural use, is being used.

 “If we had to look at grapevines, or houses, we would choose the vines, which is what the wineries say,” says Tom Neel. “But we’d like to see some open land, too.” An active volunteer in The Plains community, Linda Neel observes: “There is a strong contingency committed to land conservation…and it does center pretty much right around The Plains. This commitment is probably stronger than it ever has been.”

Though no one could predict it at the time, Arundel set in motion the imperative in this Fauquier County enclave for preserving open space when he established what is perhaps The Plains’ best-known destination today, Great Meadow. He did so in order to save the legendary, 87-year-old Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase race which, because of encroaching commercial development, was losing its long-time home at Broadview Farm in Warrenton. This was the early 1980s, and Broadview Farm, confined at this point by congestion and traffic, was furthermore slated to be sold and developed into housing.

Arundel purchased a 540-acre site on Old Tavern Road in 1983 and transformed it into Great Meadow—the Virginia Gold Cup’s new racecourse—painstakingly researching course design in order to optimize the field events he envisioned, while still preserving a stunning parcel of open space. Today, steeplechase racing, three-day eventing and horse shows are some of the most popular equestrian-oriented activities in Fauquier County.

In addition to creating a home for some of the most prominent outdoor events in the state today, Arundel waded through a fair amount of red tape in order to guarantee the appropriate zoning for Great Meadow as a field events center to meet the requirements of Fauquier County’s intricate zoning ordinance.

“Fauquier County is very, very conservation oriented,” says Merle Fallon, a land use attorney in Warrenton. About 93 percent of the county is in agricultural or conservation zoning, leaving it essentially as open space, according to Fallon.

Fallon often argues publicly that Fauquier County’s zoning ordinances—a volume of articles and appendices that he says are twice the size of those in Arlington and Fairfax counties—are very difficult to navigate. He has made a cottage industry out of assisting private citizens and businesses in interpreting Fauquier County’s ordinances. Fallon says he is approached regularly by landowners who wish to put their land into conservation easements. Almost one-quarter of Fauquier County’s privately-owned land—nearly 100,000 acres, much of which borders The Plains—has been put into conservation easements by landowners. Easements are meant to protect and conserve land from development, and are held by a number of conservancy groups, among them the Fauquier County-based Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and the state-run Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

But Fallon sees a possible downside to this. To his way of thinking, while easement-imposed land suggests landowners are leaving a legacy of open space, he argues owners have also agreed, in exchange for various tax breaks, to a variety of restrictions, including not developing it or subdividing it into smaller parcels. For Fallon, the troubling fallout of easements is that they are imposed “in perpetuity.”

“Perpetuity is a long time,” says Fallon, “longer than the earth has existed. So, people are making land use decisions based upon what is good for them today, and it may not be good for our society and our country in the future.” He likes to point out that Fauquier County’s population of 25,000 was stable for nearly 100 years—but in the past 30 years, has more than doubled to 65,000.

Heather Richards, vice president for conservation and rural programs at the PEC, says that while the state could “extinguish” an easement (though it would be an arduous, litigious process), land easements can control the type of growth that the area likely faces. “We see easements as a way to help direct us in how to develop land appropriately,” says Richards. “We can choose how we want to develop the land and how we want to grow. Development may be inevitable, but sprawl is not.”

“I never thought the easements would last forever,” says Mrs. Arundel, who speaks with the practical wisdom of someone who has worked most of her life in land ventures, a defacto job for which, she says laughingly, “I’ve never been paid!” A particular talent she shares with her late husband is the role of scrupulous steward of thousands of acres in The Plains.

The family is presently selling Morningside Training Farm, a 120-acre equestrian training center that was formerly a piece of derelict land at the foot of Merry Oak Farm. Nick Arundel acquired the land several years prior to his death, and the couple painstakingly transformed it, at considerable expense, into a fully-equipped facility for horse training, polo, steeplechase, show jumping, hunters and flat track.

But Morningside Training Farm “wasn’t supposed to be a commercial venture,” explains Mrs. Arundel. Ideally, Morningside Training Farm would transfer to owners interested in safeguarding the intended purpose of the center, not only as land designed for equestrian instruction, but land that remains open along Route 17, just a few miles from Great Meadow.

“Nick would always want to keep an open space,” she says. Mrs. Arundel feels the time is right for transferring many of the properties the family has acquired and cultivated over the years into the hands of new stewards, while remaining realistic about the big picture.

 “It is like a religion. The land doesn’t really belong to us at all,” she says. “We are just here to keep it alive. You keep it there for the next generation because it really does so much for the environment, the water and air quality.” Adds Mrs. Arundel: “You don’t just build on it, and let it go away forever, you know. You’ll never get it back.” •

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