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On Edge of Va. Sprawl, Labels Crumble, New Lives Thrive

Melissa and Rob Meyerson moved to King George County from Woodbridge. Rob, who works in Alexandria, was amazed that they could afford their new home.
Melissa and Rob Meyerson moved to King George County from Woodbridge. Rob, who works in Alexandria, was amazed that they could afford their new home. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006

In one sense, it is easy to explain where Gail and Brent Heppner live. Their new house is off Exit 110 of Interstate 95, a solid 70 miles south of the District, beyond so many subdivisions and fast-food clusters, past the giant, circular sign heralding Potomac Mills mall, then farms with billboards for $9.99 truck-stop rib-eyes, and then an additional 30 minutes past gray-green blurs of second-growth pine. They live all the way down in Caroline County, recently named one of the fastest-growing counties in the country.

In another sense, though, the Heppners' place in the geography of suburbia, of exurbia, of the Washington region -- and really, of the nation -- is more difficult to pinpoint.

They and their neighbors mainly commute to jobs north but often shop in Richmond to the south. They are surrounded by rough ruralness yet live in a relatively cutting-edge, wired new community called the Village at Ladysmith, where roads, a library and a main street are still mostly lines on paper.

"I don't know," said Brent Heppner, a Marine Corps pilot, sitting in his freshly painted, potpourri-scented living room the other day, considering his whereabouts. "Is Richmond part of Northern Virginia? Maybe the question is not what we think we are, but what do we want to be?"

It is a question that might apply to any number of similar areas across the country, places far down the highway and then a couple of exits more, fast-changing places that demographers have struggled to describe.

Although once-rural Loudoun County has for years been the icon of rapid growth, and Spotsylvania County considered the southernmost edge of sprawl, suddenly the edge seems to have jumped 30 miles or so south and east into Caroline and King George counties, which popped up right behind Loudoun on the latest top 10 list of fast-growing counties. Both are closer to Richmond than to the District.

Over the years, such areas have been called exurbs and disurbs, edge counties and edgeless cities, exopoli, outtowns, penturbias, rururbias, slurbs and, curiously, net of mixed beads. Still other terms grasp at their relation to neighboring areas: archipelago economy, global network of nodes and hubs, planetary urban networks.

Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has updated the old concept of the megalopolis. He argues that for planning and policy reasons, such places as Caroline County are most usefully understood as the seeds of 10 massive "megapolitans," areas that collectively contain two-thirds of the U.S. population.

The span from Washington to Richmond is just part of a vast megapolitan Lang calls the Northeast Corridor that stretches beyond Boston. Others include Cascadia, between and around Seattle and Portland, Ore.; Piedmont, around the edges of Birmingham, Atlanta and Charlotte; and Valley of the Sun, the flat expanse of sand and sky beyond Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz., where towns are being built from scratch and where, lately, Lang has spent some long days driving out into the desert.

"Civilization reaches these remoter places much sooner than it did in the past," he said, explaining how he has come across such curiosities as a slick gourmet restaurant in a seemingly distant corner. "I'm shocked at what I find. And you see it at the edges of Northern Virginia."

Increasingly, Lang believes, technology will untether people from long commutes and offices, making the outward expansion ever more appealing and geographic centers less fixed and more relative. In any case, the minor boom in Caroline and King George is a reminder that conventional boundaries are largely secondary to a thousand unbridled desires.

People such as the Heppners and the Ferrigans, the Graves and the Meyersons, are quite willing to venture into the wilds in pursuit not simply of an affordable house but often of something more -- more bedrooms, more land, more community, more control, more possibility -- something, in their minds, better.


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