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Space for Employers, Not for Homes

"We already have an imbalance," said Robert E. Griffiths, director of technical services for COG. "And with these growth trends, the gap gets bigger in the future. More housing development is happening further and further from the center."

Landsat satellite imagery of the region taken since the 1980s, analyzed and mapped by researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center with NASA funding, illustrates the development pattern.

Residents Madeline Hanington, left, with her dog Bilbo, and Alana Taylor stroll through still-developing Clarksburg. (Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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The images show that until the mid-1980s, development in the region was suburban but relatively focused around its historical centers in Baltimore and Washington. Since then, more development appears as splatterings, much of it on large lots far from the region's core of jobs.

"Since 1986, and even more so since 1990, there is a lot more low-density residential development appearing in outlying areas," said Scott Goetz, associate scientist at Woods Hole. "The scattering of development has become much more prominent."

Planners as far from Washington as Caroline County, Md., on the Eastern Shore, and Berkeley County, W.Va., report an uptick in applications from developers who feel squeezed out of the Washington area by tight home-building restrictions.

"I'm just amazed that people would go back and forth from here to the Washington area, but they do," said Paul Harner, a town supervisor in Liberty Township, Pa., a hamlet about 70 miles north of Washington that finds itself on the front lines of the sprawl wars. "Now that those places in Maryland have stopped home development down there, we realize it's coming up here."

Between 1982 and 2001, the average distance commuters drove daily on freeways and major roads in the Washington region rose more than 40 percent, from about 10 miles to 15 miles, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's widely used survey. The number of hours lost per person to congestion rose from 10 to 34 hours a year.

Automotive emissions, though they have lessened with cleaner cars, continue to keep the region in violation of federal air quality rules and contribute to the "dead zones" of the Chesapeake Bay.

"We're trying to reduce the number of miles people drive because of the emissions and the congestion, which is spreading so fast," said Ron Kirby, the transportation director for COG. "But we haven't been very successful. We have more cars going more miles."

While the housing shortage is pushing home buyers farther out to find an affordable new home, more convenient places for suburban home development have been placed under tight development regulations. More than half the land in the Washington metropolis, from Stafford to Carroll county and from Loudoun to Anne Arundel county, is zoned for maximum densities of one home per three acres, according to a Washington Post survey of jurisdictions.

Instead of stopping developers, however, such restrictions have led them to carve up farmland or woods into home lots that may retain their pastoral look but that planners consider wasteful, especially given the housing shortage.

"Too big to mow, too small to plow," agricultural planner Randall Arendt said of such large "rural" lots.

Driven by high demand and low inventory, housing prices in the Washington region have soared 65 percent over the past five years, according to data from the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. The rise in this region is 50 percent faster than national home prices. With the region set to add a million people by 2020 and housing developers leapfrogging outward in search of land to build on, the trends seem likely to continue.

'Good for the Tax Base'

Several jurisdictions in the Washington area have pursued a strategy of attracting more workplaces than homes, but Montgomery County under County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) made it an explicit goal. Duncan proposed -- and the County Council approved in June -- a policy calling for faster job growth than housing growth.

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