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Investing in Sprawl

Washington's Road to Outward Growth

Far-Off Houses Are Cheap, but Drive Carries Costs: Time, Traffic and Pollution

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2004; Page A01

Second of three articles

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- The vast new home development under construction here lies so far beyond the last ring of Washington suburbia that even rival developers marvel at its audacity.

The 3,200-home Huntfield community has been laid out according to neo-traditional town planning principles and designed with nostalgic American home architecture. It boasts front porches, lots of parks and an obelisk at the entrance. New four-bedroom homes sell for about $270,000 -- at least $150,000 less than the cost of a similar house closer to Washington.


Huntfield resident Eugene Marino, right, arrives home after carpooling with David and Holly Robinson. Marino's trip to Arlington takes more than an hour. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)


______ Spreading Sprawl ______
The Role of Government
County policies deflect growth rather than control it.
The Price Commuters Pay
To live in housing they can afford, many people drive a long way to work.
The Limits of Smart Growth
To planners, density is a good thing. But not to everyone.

______ Graphics ______
How Far Will We Grow?
Satellite images show the expansive growth of the Washington area since 1986.
Super-Commuters
Some residents are commuting roughly an hour or more to work.

No Shift in Howard County
Rural areas have grown in lock step with growth areas in Howard County.
______ Multimedia ______
Audio: Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey discusses the Post's series Washington-area sprawl.
______ Live Discussions ______
Transcript: Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey discussion on area sprawl.
Transcript: Gerrit Knaap of the University of Maryland Smart Growth Center fielded your questions.

_____Growth and Development_____
Planners' Brains vs. Public's Brawn (The Washington Post, Aug 10, 2004)
Space for Employers, Not for Homes (The Washington Post, Aug 8, 2004)
Arrival of Metro Could Transform Tysons (The Washington Post, Aug 7, 2004)
Loudoun Looks at Settling Lawsuits (The Washington Post, Jul 27, 2004)
Md. Panel Backs Study Of Rte. 32 Widening (The Washington Post, Jul 22, 2004)
More Stories
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But the real-life price for the vast majority of residents is a daily commute that takes about an hour or more. The subdivision of super-commuters sits across the Blue Ridge Mountains and more than 25 miles from the nearest job center, in Leesburg, and even farther from offices in Reston, Tysons Corner and Washington.

According to statistics provided by the developer on the first 100 home buyers, only one will work in West Virginia. Of the others, 72 will work in suburban Virginia, 13 in Maryland and five in Washington. The rest identified themselves as self-employed or retired.

"I'm going to be refreshing my Italian with some CDs during the drive," said Eugene Marino, an archaeologist who gets on the road at 5 most weekday mornings for a voyage from Charles Town to Arlington that takes an hour and 15 minutes each way. "It's not that bad. We wanted to have a nice place that we could afford -- so here we are."

Marino's next-door neighbors each spend an hour and 45 minutes commuting -- one to Capitol Hill and the other to the Pentagon.

No one, it seems -- not the developer, environmentalists or many Huntfield residents -- believes it makes sense to build homes for Washington area commuters so far from work.

There is plenty of undeveloped land much, much closer. But as Huntfield's developer and some residents see it, they're investing here because strict building restrictions on land in more convenient locations have contributed to a shortage of affordable home lots across the region. While pricier homes on large tracts of land are permitted in neighboring Loudoun County, for example, much of the land has been declared off-limits to conventional subdivisions.

Home buyers have long been willing to commute to find a home with a yard at the right price. But the typical commuting time for Huntfield residents is roughly double that of regional averages. The extra driving leads to more gasoline consumption, dirtier air and other environmental problems. The traffic is choking roads in rural areas.

"The land use regulations in Loudoun and Fairfax have done nothing to stop sprawl," said Paul J. Raco, the planner for Jefferson County, W.Va., which surrounds Huntfield. "They've only accelerated it. They've pushed it out here."

A Measured Trade-Off

Amy Schmitt, a Huntfield resident, gestures from a lawn chair on the wooden deck of her home. "It's nice out here -- look," she said.

The drawback is that her husband must commute to Reston and Sterling.

"People say, 'You moved where?' But when they come, they're pretty impressed," she said. "Why would I pay more when I can drive 30 minutes more and get something like this?"


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