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Growth Cooling in D.C. Suburbs, Census Data Show

By N.C. Aizenman and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 22, 2007

The galloping growth of Washington's outer Virginia suburbs is slowing at last, according to Census Bureau estimates to be released today, with high housing costs beginning to dull the appeal of counties that have long been a magnet for newcomers.

Loudoun, the nation's second-fastest-growing county in 2005, dropped to fourth place largely because only 7,506 people moved in during 2006, compared with 12,002 the previous year.

Fairfax's growth rate also declined, but for a different reason: Ever more residents are moving out of the county.

The shift brings Northern Virginia in line with the District and Maryland, where Montgomery County's growth rate continued to slow and growth in two other counties -- Anne Arundel and Prince George's -- stagnated in 2006.

"There's still growth in the Washington region, and there's still migration from the inside of the doughnut to the periphery. But it's kind of slacking," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "From being a very fast-growing exurban place, Washington has now come down to more normal levels."

Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, said the findings fit a pattern of booming development in the South and West and relative stagnation in the Northeast.

The nation's fastest- and third-fastest-growing counties in 2006 -- Flagler County, Fla., and Rockwall County, Tex. -- are in the South.

Second place went to a Northern locale, Kendall County, Ill. And for a while, Lang said, Northern Virginia also appeared to be an exception to the national rule.

"It seemed like the northernmost reach of the Sunbelt," he said. "But now it's looking like the southernmost point of the Northeast."

Not everyone is convinced by this year's figures, which were produced by the Census Bureau based on sources such as census surveys, tax returns, and birth and death records.

In Prince George's, census data show that the county's population dropped by 1,449 in 2006. "That would surprise me," said Joseph Valenza, an economist for the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission.

"For the last several years," Valenza said, "there's been roughly two births for every death here. In addition, we're seeing the volume of residential construction rather steady, and there's been indications that there's an uptick in vacancy rates."

Valenza said that local figures have shown an annual population increase of about 1 percent in recent years. According to his estimates, the county's population grew from 853,000 in 2005 to 860,000 in 2006. "There's a lot of new construction going on here, and I don't think [the buildings] are standing vacant," he said.

In Anne Arundel, where census figures indicate a net loss of 97 people, county demographer Kavi Maddula said he had not yet done a population estimate for 2006. But he said that the county issued more than 2,300 building permits during the year, a figure that suggested to him that the population had grown.

"I haven't seen this data, but I would be surprised if those numbers were correct," said Maddula, who said his figures indicated that the county had 513,700 people in 2005. "If it were losing population, I don't think we would have the kind of activity that we've had in residential and nonresidential construction."

Loudoun's demographer, Jill Allmon, said her estimates also differ from the census figures. But she said the overall slowdown in growth indicated by the Census Bureau tracks with what county officials are seeing.

The number of new housing units, for instance, declined from 6,592 in 2005 to 5,803 in 2006.

Mike Gorman, owner of Oakridge Communities, which builds homes in Loudoun and Prince William, blames high housing prices, which in Loudoun have reached about $694,000 for a detached house and $426,000 for a townhouse.

"It's just expensive to live in Loudoun. The cost of a single-family home is expensive. The cost of a townhouse is expensive," Gorman said.

By contrast, Lang said, "you could move to Nashville or Atlanta or Columbia, South Carolina, and pay $300,000 for a right fine house. . . . So a lot of the people who are leaving Fairfax may just be bypassing Loudoun and heading straight for those places."

Staff writer Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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