New Rural Sales Pitch: Work Outside D.C.'s Fallout Zone

Development is booming along Interstate 81 near Winchester, Va., as federal agencies move to relocate offices.
Development is booming along Interstate 81 near Winchester, Va., as federal agencies move to relocate offices. (By Scott Mason For The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Winchester and its neighbors along Interstate 81 in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley have much to recommend themselves to potential employers, including a low cost of living, access to a major highway and views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.

More recently, though, the area has been successfully trumpeting another attribute: It is just outside the "blast zone."

In a little-noticed migration with implications for both greater Washington and the valley, several federal agencies, including the FBI, are relocating operations to the I-81 corridor. Helping drive the shift is the government's emphasis on security in a post-Sept. 11 world, which turns Winchester's location 75 miles from Washington into a geographic ideal. It is far enough from the capital to escape the fallout of a nuclear explosion -- a distance often estimated at 50 miles -- but still close enough so that employees can get to the District relatively easily when they need to.

"There's a certain distance they need to be out from the strike zone -- and Winchester is outside of that," said Jim Deskins, economic redevelopment chief for the 26,000-person city.

The moves represent a level of dispersal even beyond other recently announced federal moves, including the military's planned relocation of 22,000 jobs from the District and inner suburbs to Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County and the FBI's relocation of its Northern Virginia field office from Tysons Corner to Manassas. Local officials and planners have criticized those moves, saying they will worsen sprawl and traffic congestion by moving jobs away from downtown and mass transit.

Whether the moves to the I-81 corridor raise similar concerns is a matter of debate. Federal officials argue that the valley is not only more secure, it's preferable for planning and budget reasons. The cost of land and labor are lower in the valley, and with workers moving into the fringes of Northern Virginia and even West Virginia in search of affordable homes, moving operations to a place such as Winchester could mean shorter commutes for many. That, in turn, could mean lower turnover and a more productive workforce.

Leading the shift is the FBI, which chose Winchester over other towns of similar distance from the District as the site for a big centralized archive that by 2009 will employ at least 1,200 people, many of them now working in Washington and Baltimore. Some employees already are working in a temporary facility outside Winchester, a nondescript building that used to hold a printing firm and is now studded with security cameras and bollards.

FEMA has chosen a farm just outside town for an operations center that will employ 700 people. Local officials say this would include positions moved from Mount Weather, the government's hilltop emergency center on the border of Loudoun and Clarke counties, so that that facility could be devoted to national security instead of natural disasters.

Real estate brokers working in Winchester say that FEMA is looking for additional space for its accounting department and that the Department of Homeland Security is looking for space around Harrisonburg, farther south along I-81. Activity is also picking up north along the corridor. Outside Martinsburg, W.Va., the Coast Guard is building a new National Maritime Center, a 200-person office now in Arlington. In Washington County, Md., near Hagerstown, the government is redeveloping the vacant Fort Ritchie to house unnamed intelligence agencies.

Advocates of "smart growth" say relocating the jobs to the valley may not worsen sprawl and traffic in the D.C. metro area, but they argue that it will cause sprawl within the Shenandoah Valley, particularly since the new facilities are being built outside town, on and around the apple orchards that used to surround Winchester. They warn that the growth could threaten the rolling Piedmont that acts as a buffer between development in Northern Virginia and the I-81 corridor.

Of most concern, the advocates say, is that the federal dispersal is occurring with next to no public discussion. No one has yet made a case for whether it's really necessary to send agencies that far, said Stewart Schwartz, director of the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. If it is simply a matter of finding more affordable land, agencies could expand in Prince George's County, where there is much available room adjacent to Metro stations, he said.

"Where's the public debate, the elected officials' oversight? This level of dispersal didn't even happen at the height of the Cold War," Schwartz said. "We ought to have an open dialogue about what the real threats might be and whether this dispersal is necessary."

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