The Washington region is growing faster than any metropolitan area outside the Sunbelt, drawing thousands of immigrants and holding on to current residents despite worsening commutes and skyrocketing home prices.
Census figures released yesterday show that the Washington area added 75,000 residents last year, bringing the population to 5.9 million in a region that extends from the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay to Northern Virginia horse country. The sharpest increases occurred in the outer ring of suburbs.
Tamatha Hollingsworth says her Loudoun County neighborhood, which used to be a "bunch of empty shells," is filling up. Loudoun's population has jumped 41 percent in four years, the highest rate among U.S. counties.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
_____Growth and Development_____
Growth Foes Seek to Divide Loudoun in Two (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Loudoun Growth Forces Skirmish (The Washington Post, Mar 9, 2005)
Loudoun Housing Limits Reversed (The Washington Post, Mar 4, 2005)
Rebirth at Tysons Corner (The Washington Post, Feb 4, 2005)
Sale of Land Hits Wrong Chord for Strathmore (The Washington Post, Feb 3, 2005)
Experts say the area's growth reflects the strong government-powered economy, which generates jobs and then creates retail and service work to take care of new residents.
That trend has been reinforced in the past four years: While the rest of the nation was mired in an economic downturn, Washington gained more jobs than any other metropolitan area, in large part because of government spending after the terrorist attacks in 2001.
The employment opportunities make the region a magnet for newcomers.
"As long as the drivers remain in place -- defense, homeland security and federal activities -- generally, one can expect to see reasonably rapid job growth and population growth for the balance of the decade," said Anirban Basu, chief executive of the economic consulting firm Sage Policy Group in Baltimore.
Washington stands apart from other immigrant-rich metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles, which are losing tens of thousands of residents to less-congested, cheaper communities. But housing costs, snarled roads and other downsides of growth could lessen the region's appeal, experts say.
"This expansion may slow a bit," Basu said, because people who are considering a move here "may be intimidated by the region's high housing costs."
The new figures, covering the period ending July 1, 2004, show that Loudoun County's population jumped 41 percent in four years, the sharpest rate among the nation's counties. Although Spotsylvania and Stafford counties also ranked in the top 25, Loudoun continues to stand out in the rapidly growing swath of Northern Virginia, which has received a disproportionate share of the homeland security spending. Last year, Loudoun was home to one in four of the region's new residents.
That growth translates into 49 new arrivals a day and 3,500 new public school students each year, spurring hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction and tax increases.
"They start all the construction at 7 in the morning. They're going to wake you up," said Tamatha Hollingsworth, 34, who moved from Prince William County into a budding subdivision west of Dulles International Airport with her husband last year. They were among the first families on their block, where at night it was "a little spooky, just a bunch of empty shells around."
But now the lights are on and the neighborhood is filling fast, populated by young families like her own. "There's a lot of storks in these yards," said Hollingsworth, who gave birth to a boy five weeks ago. She is on maternity leave from her job as an accountant with a company that left the District two years ago.
Last year, 6,600 permits for new homes were approved, even as the county debates whether to allow more development west of Dulles.
"You might as well try to negotiate with the tide or the wind as to try to stave off the effects of increased population . . . in Northern Virginia," said Robert Gordon, chairman of a zoning advisory board in the county.
Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey, who analyzed census figures for the nation's 43 largest metropolitan areas, said the top-ranked areas, with double-digit growth rates since 2000, are all in the South or West. The Washington region grew 7 percent during that time.
The area, Frey said, "serves people who want to stay plugged into the Northeast but want the Sunbelt amenities."
Behind the area numbers are two starkly different growth patterns. Newer exurban areas such as Loudoun are expanding mainly because of people relocating from other U.S. communities, including some who moved outward from close-in D.C. suburbs.
Older, closer-in counties are growing because of new immigrants and births. Steve Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration, said his analysis of birth records indicates that more than one-third of new babies in the area have foreign-born mothers. About one in six area residents is an immigrant.
Nationally, according to the Census Bureau, Flagler County, Fla., ranked first last year for its 10.1 percent population increase. Kendall County, outside Chicago, ranked second at 8.3 percent. Loudoun, which fell from first to third place in the one-year growth rankings, grew 8.1 percent.
In Maryland, the fastest-growing county was Calvert, whose population increased 16 percent from 2000 to 2004. Charles County, which grew 12.7 percent during that time, ranked second.
A previously released estimate said the District's population declined by about 9,000 people.