By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 8:58 PM
Prince William resident Jan Cunard said when she moved to the county more than 20 years ago, the front page story in the local paper made her feel like she had never left her rural Minnesota community.
But now, she said, the suburban bedroom community she was attracted to in the late '80s has been transformed as the population exploded and Prince William became one of the fastest growing counties in the commonwealth.
"I still remember when we moved in that summer, on the front page of the paper was who won first place for their raspberry jam at the county fair," she said. "Now what you read about is what new companies are being brought into Prince William. We have changed so much from a rural to a suburban community."
Prince William's population grew 40 percent in the past decade, topping 400,000 last year, according to data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. The demographics have also changed as the Hispanic and Asian populations almost tripled in the past decade, and the number of black residents doubled, making the county a majority-minority jurisdiction, according to the data.
"I came to Prince William in 1969 and was the ninth resident of Lake Ridge," Prince William Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said. "We only had dirt roads. . . . You can see how much has changed. We have a lot to offer now in Prince William, so [the numbers] don't surprise me."
Caddigan said people are attracted to the community because of the good schools, affordable homes and numerous amenities.
According to the data, almost a third of Prince William residents are younger than 18, crowding schools in the county's fast-growing western end. English is the second language of many newcomers.
In the mid-1990s, about 2 percent of students in Prince William schools were enrolled having "limited English proficiency." By 2010, about 17 percent of students fit that category, according to data from school officials.
"We have become a mini melting pot," said Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville). "If you go into schools in the Linton Hall area, in some elementary schools there are 60 different languages being spoken."
Non-Hispanic whites make up slightly less than half of the county's population, according to the data. In 2000, they accounted for 65 percent of residents.
By contrast, the percentage of Hispanics soared over the past decade. They account for about 20 percent of the population, compared with about 10 percent in 2000.
Their numbers might have been different if the Prince William Board of County Supervisors hadn't begun requiring police officers to check the immigration status of anyone arrested. The controversial policy prompted thousands of Hispanics to move out of the county between 2007 and 2009, according to recent studies by the University of Virginia and the Migration Policy Institute.
Jason Grant, a county spokesman, said county officials are not surprised that the Hispanic population continued to grow. The initial concerns some had with the policy faded once people realized that it was meant to target illegal immigrants who commit crimes and that there was no racial profiling, he said.
County officials chalked up the diversity to what is happening across Northern Virginia, which has become home to more minorities in the past decade.
Cunard, who serves on numerous county committees and the Prince William/Manassas Convention and Visitors Bureau board of directors, said she thinks the multiple housing options available also brought a variety of people. In the past 10 years, she said, developers have focused on building townhouses, condominium units, affordable homes and larger neighborhoods, providing something for everyone.
Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said because of the changing demographics over the past decade, he has had to retool the department's outreach efforts.
Many brochures are produced in Spanish, and there are telephone lines that Spanish-speaking residents requiring assistance and officers needing translators can call.
Cultural differences have also created new neighborhood issues, because some people practice customs and traditions that might vary from those of their neighbors, he said.
Not only has the county become more diverse, but its western suburbs experienced dizzying growth over the past decade. What is defined as the Linton Hall area by the Census Bureau increased by about 27,000 residents.
The growth happened so quickly that supervisors have taken various measures over the years to slow it down. Covington said that in 2007 or 2008, the board halted all rezoning for a year. Last February, the county put the brakes on building in the western end until three new schools - set to open this fall - were operational.
Deane said he has added 137 sworn positions in the past decade.
Covington said he credits some of the growth to the availability of job opportunities. The county has focused on bringing high-tech jobs to its prized Innovation @ Prince William Technology Park and adding business incentives to entice companies to move to the suburban community. From 2000 to 2009, CNN/Money magazine named Prince William the top jurisdiction for job growth in Virginia and in the Washington area.
Grant said the population boom can also be attributed to the type of community that government officials created. The fiscally conservative board probably attracts some residents as well as the planned neighborhood communities in the western end, where people have all the amenities they need close to home, he said.
"I think there was a lot of desire for communities . . . where the tax rate wasn't burdensome and where there were still good services and safe neighborhoods," Grant said. "I think that is why Prince William was appealing, because it provided those opportunities for people."
With the astronomical growth, county officials will have to redistrict before the August primary election. County officials said each district has to be about the same size, and although the demographic makeup of each district doesn't have to be the same, officials can't discriminate when drawing district lines. Board members will vote on where the new district lines ultimately go and also on whether they want to add a district, county officials said, noting that Virginia law allows for up to 11 districts in a jurisdiction.