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Fauquier's Prize Comes With a Price

Recognition as Best Rural Locale Accompanies Spread of Dread Suburbia

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page B05

Out in Fauquier County, the news was greeted with earnest pride, a smattering of scoffs and faint feelings of dread.

The rolling, green bastion of cattle farms and horse shows, Warners and Mellons -- more recently discovered by country-life-seeking suburbanites, Starbucks and the International House of Pancakes -- was ranked the best place to live in rural America in this month's Progressive Farmer magazine.

Harry McConnell, a retired naval officer who has lived in Fauquier County for nearly 30 years, grows and sells fruit, flowers and vegetables. (Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)

The Top 10

Progressive Farmer magazine has tapped 10 counties as the "best places to live in rural America":

1. Fauquier County

2. Oconee County, Ga.

3. McPherson County, Kan.

4. Callaway County, Mo.

5. Grafton County, N.H.

6. Gillespie County, Tex.

7. Sauk County, Wis.

8. Wilson County, Tenn.

9. Eagle County, Colo.

10. Rankin County, Miss.

"Rural, proud of it and trying to stay that way," the article began. "With equestrian activities around every corner, no wonder Fauquier is attractive."

Accompanying photos included a winery and action from the Gold Cup steeplechase, but not, for instance, the Wal-Mart and Outback Steakhouse, which opened recently and which some longtime residents fear are more accurate, if less pastoral, signs of the county's future.

"Hmmm," said Keith Dickinson, agricultural extension agent for the county, choosing his words carefully. "I think most folks were surprised when they heard about it. I'm sure the tourism folks really love it. But I think for most people, it's the 'trying to stay that way' part that is the primary concern."

In recent years, the sort of grand-scale suburban development that has pervaded Loudoun and Prince William counties has crossed the border into Fauquier, which traditionally has prided itself on its efforts to preserve farms and open space and such rarefied pursuits as fox hunting.

While farmland in counties closer to Washington has become front lawns or open space suitable for dog walking, Fauquier has preserved about 65,000 agricultural acres, about 15 percent of the county, through various conservation programs.

Perhaps inevitably, though, some of the region's largest builders have begun carving out subdivisions around such towns as Warrenton, where planners have tried to direct growth.

"Warrenton and Fauquier are no longer the best-kept secret," said Warrenton Mayor George B. Fitch. "Everybody knows about us because of these national awards. . . . We've done a good job of showing how growth can blend in and coexist with the environment."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, John Elcano, a vice president of Toll Brothers, which will break ground soon on Warrenton Chase, a development of 150 homes, was enthusiastic about the magazine article, too.

"I think what's attracting people out there is the old-town ambiance," he said. "Warrenton is a quaint town with upscale restaurants. There's a kind of urban-chic type feeling to it."

Others point out that some criteria by which the magazine ranked its top 100 -- quality of schools, proximity to good hospitals -- had little to do with what is truly rural: a farmer's ability to make a living off the land. They noted that the article mentioned the low sales and state income taxes but did not mention rising property taxes. The magazine also said farmland could be had for $3,500 an acre, when the going rate is more often $10,000 to $100,000, some residents said.

"I could buy swampland for that price," said farmer Harry McConnell, 68, referring to the magazine's estimate.

Then there was the plain irony that people seeking the rural life portrayed in the magazine -- one within commuting distance of office, vineyard and Panera Bread -- are the reason the county is losing not only its ruralness but, perhaps more painfully, its Fauquier-ness, its dairy-farm-meets-polo-match.

"Down the road here, as you come up Route 29, you will see all these hideous houses," said Jackie Lee, director of the county historical society. "Such awful-looking things. We're trying to preserve the rural atmosphere out here, because it is so lovely, so wonderful."

Jack Odle, editor of Progressive Farmer, said the ranking was published because more and more people -- who are increasingly his readers -- want to partake of such ambiance.

"There's a trend of people moving back to the country," said Odle, whose magazine is about the "unique challenges and joys of living in the country." "I think they're just trying to get away from the stress of urban life."

That was one reason real estate agent Mary McCarty decided to move from Fairfax County into a new garden home on the outskirts of Warrenton. She granted that she does not want an authentic rural lifestyle; she wants to be near farms but not of them. She has friends, she said, who have moved to counties farther out.

"To me, that's really what you'd call rural-rural," McCarty said. "I have a quasi-urban lifestyle, surrounded by a suburban lifestyle, surrounded by farms and lots of acreage."

She is eager, she said, to post the magazine article on her Web site because she is certain it will attract lots of business.

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