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

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.

Last summer, for instance, Lori Ferrigan and her husband had no particular complaints, she said. They lived with their two daughters in a perfectly lovely house in what she called a "wonderful" neighborhood in Fredericksburg. Lori commuted to Alexandria; Stephen, retired from the United Nations and the British military, stayed home with the kids.

Then Lori became pregnant again, and she began imagining how much better it would be if her two daughters had their own bedrooms, because she had always wanted her own room when she was little -- and what is having a family about if not to give them more than you had. So she started searching.

Although her house had appreciated, Ferrigan could not afford what she wanted in Fredericksburg, so she drove about 20 minutes south into Caroline, until recently a mostly rural, sparsely populated county of farms and pine forests, cement and lumber plants, travel plazas and truck washes, and many Baptist churches. She looked at some older houses first, "and I said, 'This is too far!' " she recalled.

Then she pulled into the just-bricked entrance of the Village at Ladysmith, one of a handful of new developments in the county. It is a mile or so off I-95, a right on Jefferson Davis Highway, just past the Food Lion and Hair Jungle. Bulldozers were scraping off streets named Begonia and Azalea. It had sidewalks, a clock tower and the first of 3,000 close-together Charleston-esque houses with such names as Hemingway and Capote, with front porches and sidewalks, and garages in the back. The rest was a sketch in the welcome center.

Seeing it -- the idea of it anyway -- Ferrigan thought to herself, "This is not that far at all!"

"I wanted the white picket fence," she said. "I wanted it."

And, it turns out, she could have it. She and her husband, who wondered aloud recently whether low interest rates and the housing frenzy are a grand distraction from the national debt and the Iraq war, sold their house in Fredericksburg for $379,000, bought the new one for $340,000 and moved in last July.

In August, Lori Ferrigan installed a shiny white plastic fence, and for now, she said, she feels satisfied. She laughed off the irony that her daughters are now inseparable and will only sleep in the same bedroom.

Her commute up I-95 to Alexandria, where she works in marketing for a nonprofit group, is two hours one way.

"I drive by myself," Ferrigan said. "I like it. You can just think about everything you have to do, everything you have to plan. Unless it's a three-hour [drive], I don't mind it at all."

Others who've moved to Caroline and neighboring King George tell fundamentally similar stories, which are perhaps the best explanation for the growth, notable more for what it portends than for what it actually is: From 2004 to 2005, Caroline's population grew 6.5 percent to 25,563, while neighboring King George grew 6.7 percent to 20,637.

Among that number is Rich Artenian, who left Prince William County, where he worked for the county parks department, for retirement in a new house on four piney, hilly acres in King George. It was not simply where he could afford something; he could afford his house in Woodbridge just fine. It was rather where he could afford what he wanted. He lives there with his companion, Sharon Hartman.

"I like working in the yard and staying busy," he said, shoveling dirt from his pickup on a clear and cool afternoon. "Once you know your needs, you locate in an area to have your needs met."

A few miles away, Nakia Graves, a government contractor, and husband Wesley Graves, an insurance adjustor, said they moved from Prince George's to their new beigey subdivision for better schools for their daughter, among other reasons.

"I'm a Southern person by nature," said Wesley Graves, hosing off his driveway one Friday after work. "I like to be isolated."

His wife commutes an hour on less-traveled roads across the Potomac River through Maryland to the District and said she loves it. Others who've ventured south drive to Fredericksburg or to the Dahlgren naval center or deep into Northern Virginia.

For a while, they zip along uncrowded roads and feel "free," said Rob Meyerson, or "peaceful," Nakia Graves said. They listen to satellite radio or a taped sermon from the church they left in Mississippi; they talk on the phone because it's easier when you're alone or watch the seasons change through their windshields, tracing new geography that Lang and others are trying to define.

"I see deer on the way home," said Meyerson, who moved with his wife and daughter from a house in Woodbridge to a house he was amazed he could afford. "I get to see the sun rise every day and the sun set. It's beautiful."

He works in Alexandria as an elevator repairman and considers himself conservative. Behind other new doors in both counties are a self-described hippie liberal and a home-schooling conservative preacher, a young lawyer, a teacher, a real estate agent, a software configuration manager.

Although President Bush won the vast majority of the nation's fastest-growing counties in the 2004 election, Lang noted, Democrat John F. Kerry won 51.6 percent of the popular vote in the 10 megapolitans.

Whatever their political affiliations, though, people moving to King George and Caroline counties tend to share one fundamental quality: They don't see themselves so much escaping from the world as seeking out some better version of it, or even creating their own.

"I never considered moving here as trying to retreat," said Gail Heppner, addressing a common criticism. "But I do try to look at it as I'm going somewhere where I'll find people with the values that are important to me: consideration, friendliness, safety. . . . I look at it as a proactive choice to go and find what we want, instead of just complaining."

She likes that she has neighbors who will call the Caroline County sheriff if an unfamiliar car lingers too long. She likes that she can open her living room window and practically touch the house next door. She likes that one Friday, the woman who lives there opened her window and called her and Brent over for margaritas.

She likes the newness of it all, being part of a place -- a suburb, an exurb, a town, a megapolitan or whatever it's called -- where she believes she can exert some control over a world that, in her view, has degenerated since her childhood in Cincinnati.

And another thing: "We love our floor plan -- love, love, love," Heppner said.

Perhaps what she calls "the ick in the world" will catch up. "Reality is what it is," she said.

For the time being, though, her life off Exit 110 seems, to her, to approximate something better.

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