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Correction to This Article
An Oct. 25 article about politics in Virginia's outer suburbs incompletely characterized the reasons Jamie and Stephan Lechner left Germantown for the Dominion Valley community in Prince William County. Although the Lechners were increasingly uncomfortable raising their twin sons in their Germantown neighborhood, they moved when they did because Stephan Lechner changed jobs. Also, the discipline problems referred to in the article were in a school adjacent to the Lechners' Germantown neighborhood, not the school where Jamie Lechner taught.

Exurbanites Occupy an Unsettled Place in Va. Politics

Stephan Lechner plays with twin 6-year-olds Nicholas and Noah at the family home in Dominion Valley, a gated community in Prince William.
Stephan Lechner plays with twin 6-year-olds Nicholas and Noah at the family home in Dominion Valley, a gated community in Prince William. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Jamie and Stephan Lechner liked their house in Germantown well enough, but in recent years, they said, the neighborhood began to change in ways that made them feel less comfortable. There were some discipline problems in the school where Jamie taught. There was a shooting in a low-income area not too far from where they lived and other, smaller signs that made them think things were headed downward.

And so, with their twin boys near school age, the Lechners did what they figured anyone of means would: They packed up and moved to a place billed as a retreat from all that: Dominion Valley, a new, gated, golf course community of $700,000 homes on the rural edges of Northern Virginia, a place where the singular issue of traffic dominates and where the last memorable conflict was whether jeans would be allowed in the country club.

"We had conflict," said Jamie Lechner, referring to her old Germantown neighborhood. "And we wanted to move away from that. . . . That's why we're here -- to be sheltered."

As another election season beats on in Virginia, most political analysts agree that fast-growing exurban areas such as western Prince William County will remain a boon to the Republican Party. But the ultimate effect of new, private, often homogenous enclaves remains uncertain, because they have yet to define how their everyday interests play into state politics.

In recent Virginia elections, 15 to 17 percent of the vote has come from cities, 20 to 23 percent from rural areas and 58 to 62 percent from the suburbs, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Of the suburban vote, he estimates, at least 25 percent has come from new communities in the outermost suburbs, as opposed to denser areas such as Fairfax County or eastern Prince William.

And yet behind the landscaped gates of Dominion Valley, where lines were two and three hours long in the last presidential election, voters said that few local issues besides traffic and sprawl rise to the level of requiring a political solution. Many said they would vote in the Nov. 8 elections more out of civic duty than passion, using long-held party affiliations as a guide.

"We never discuss politics," said Nina Kraemer, who was hosting a scrapbooking get-together at Dominion Valley's sports complex the other night. "I don't know, I guess something would have to spawn a conversation for one to occur. We talk about traffic -- we talk about that to the nth degree. We're afraid to go to the Target because we might not get back to the bus stop on time" to meet the children after school.

In the last presidential election, George W. Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the United States largely by appealing to social values through such issues as same-sex marriage. In the governor's race, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore is following a similar course with his death penalty ads, while both he and his Democratic opponent, Timothy M. Kaine, have made traffic a central theme.

So far, though, neither candidate's message seems to have penetrated very far into the consciousness of Dominion Valley voters, who struggle to recall what either man stands for and, sometimes, even to name either man.

One reason local politics seems so distant, residents say, is that when issues do arise -- say, speed bumps vs. stop signs -- they tend to look to their own private government, the homeowners association, for a solution.

The association is controlled by Toll Brothers, the developer, whose red flag flies alongside the American flag at the entrance to Dominion Valley.

Recently, 180 people turned out for a meeting on whether the developer should be allowed to build several hundred more houses and townhouses on adjacent land. Toll offered residents a new recreation center with an indoor theme pool as an inducement (there has been little opposition so far).


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