3 Virginia Exurbs Near Top of U.S. in Growth

By D'Vera Cohn and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Washington area's powerful economy has pushed out suburban sprawl so far that two semirural counties south of Fredericksburg have become bustling commuter frontiers that rank for the first time among the fastest-growing communities in the nation.

Newly developing Caroline and King George counties have joined Loudoun County, which has been on each annual list since 2000, according to census figures for last year released today. Most people moving to all three come from older areas, where growth has slowed and new immigrants often replace residents who have left.

The exurbs produced most of the region's growth last year, when the Washington area's population increased to nearly 6 million. Halfway through the decade, the 8 percent growth rate for the region, which stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge, is on track to equal that of the 1990s.

Washington area counties are driving most of the growth in Maryland and Virginia, figures covering the year that ended July 1 show. Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William and St. Mary's counties added more residents in the past five years than in the previous 10, and Charles added nearly as many.

But momentum is moving beyond those counties. Ranked just behind Loudoun, whose 2005 growth rate ranked eighth in the country, were King George and Caroline counties, two small jurisdictions more likely in the past to draw state employees from Richmond than federal or high-tech workers from the capital region. Now, most of their new residents come from Prince William, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Charles and other counties closer to Washington.

Those new residents are seeking lower-priced housing, bigger lots and less congested roads than established neighborhoods offer. Some are bypassing other fast-growing counties that imposed development restraints. Age-restricted housing and waterfront property in Caroline and King George also are drawing retirees and "pre-retirees," people in their fifties who plan to work for a few more years.

Many new residents commute through Washington area gridlock. Portia Cobb, 37, leaves home in Caroline County at 4 a.m. each day to drive her van pool 70 miles to the District, where she is a manager at a printing company. She used to live in the city, and now she takes about an hour to get there in the morning.

"This is the only way I could live comfortably and have some space and privacy," said Cobb, who paid $224,000 last year for her four-bedroom, three-bath, split-foyer rambler. "I went there to get away from the hustle and bustle and to get to easy living."

Caroline County officials predict its population will double within two decades. Among more than 10,000 new homes in the pipeline are 4,000 at the Haymount development overlooking the Rappahannock River. "Our market is pretty simple," developer John A. Clark said. "It's commuters in the I-95 corridor."

Officials of both counties try to straddle the line between welcoming the newcomers and reining in runaway growth.

"I'm all for property owners' rights, but the folks here really don't want to see the county's identity turned upside down," said Dale W. Sisson Jr., vice chairman of the King George County Board of Supervisors. "The challenge that we have from today forward is to make sure that we can have some type of control over the growth."

"The real story there is folks moving to where they can find affordable housing, and to some extent where they can find housing at all," said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wachovia.

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