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Suburban Growth Drains Quality of Life Inside the Beltway

By Glenn Frankel and Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 25, 1997; Page A11

Aerial of Ashburn Village.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The fate of the region's open space is not just an issue in the outer suburbs, where fields and forests are disappearing at a rapid rate. It also matters in urban centers such as the District, Hyattsville, Arlington and Alexandria, where poverty and prosperity are directly related to what happens on the periphery.

Experts say two processes are at work inside the Capital Beltway.

In the first, suburban sprawl drains distressed urban neighborhoods of population and jobs, which jump to distant locales beyond the reach of public transportation, according to urban growth experts.

Sprawl, said Susan von Waggoner, a community activist in Middleburg, "draws taxes and people and money away from the inner city. When we oppose a project out here, we're not just trying to protect our own back yard. We're trying to prevent creating a wasteland inside the Beltway."

Take Hyattsville, a city of about 15,000 near the District line in Prince George's County. With its affordable Victorian homes, leafy neighborhoods and proximity to the central city, Hyattsville has cultivated an image as one of Washington's friendlier inside-the-Beltway suburbs. You find people there like Bob LaQuay, 61, who plays the city's Santa Claus at Christmas, living with his wife in his grandparents' house on a cozy street.

But Hyattsville lately is a city on edge. The LaQuays' car was stolen out of their driveway last summer. Bars are going up on the windows of homes. A citizen task force has even considered changing the city's name to the quainter Hyattsvillage to lure business.

The quality of life is declining in part because middle-class families, the backbone of the community, are moving to newer, more distant suburbs where land and housing often are cheaper and schools and other services are perceived as better.

It's a vicious cycle. Older communities must help pay for schools, fire stations, roads, sewer and water lines in the newer areas while their own services erode. As their tax base shrinks from population loss, they can't attract commercial and industrial businesses, even though they have plenty of room. Hyattsville has two Metro stations but can't stimulate much development around either.

"People looking to buy a home see inner communities like Hyattsville and say, 'How long is it going to take for this community to rebound? Can't we find a place that looks more attractive already?' " said Lisa Walker, a Hyattsville City Council member.

In the Virginia communities that face the problem, Gov. George Allen (R) is inclined to allow market forces to take their course unimpeded by government. But Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has proposed rewarding counties with state money for capital needs—such as roads and schools—if local officials confine growth to a few compact areas. Communities inside the Beltway such as Hyattsville would qualify as business enterprise zones, with state aid stimulating redevelopment.

To bypass already developed land "and say we'll build one more subdivision in western Montgomery County or destroy one more farm in Frederick County makes no sense to me at all," Glendening said.

Successful communities inside the Beltway, such as Arlington, Alexandria and Bethesda, find another land-use issue at play: Soaring land prices in their communities have developers seeking every remaining piece of privately held open space and filling it with the maximum number of high-priced houses allowed by law.

The process is known as "in-fill." One place to see it in action is on the north side of Lee Highway in Arlington between Tuckahoe Park and the interchange with Interstate 66. One developer built 30 town houses on a parcel that previously held a lone Victorian, the historic Fenwick home. The original house has been preserved, but it is now hemmed in by the town houses.

Two blocks north, another developer razed two stately Victorians and uprooted nearly a dozen mature trees to build eight deluxe single-family dwellings on a new cul-de-sac. Although privately owned, the trees and open space had been an important part of the neighborhood's character.

"This area used to seem very private and very beautiful," said Dennis Price, who lives nearby on Underwood Street. "Now it's looking more and more like just another crowded suburb."

Arlington County officials could do nothing to prevent either project. Both were on land zoned for residential use. Indeed, county planner James Snyder said residents were lucky that the Fenwick home, which faces heavily developed Lee Highway, wasn't razed for a gas station. "To have town houses instead was in many ways a victory for the neighborhood," he said.

An open field backs up to a housing development outside of Poolesville, Maryland.
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Arlington's answer is to encourage builders to create new patches of open space and leave standing as many trees as practical. Snyder also points to new pocket parks and open areas taking shape in ultra-urban Rosslyn, the Metrorail corridor along Wilson Boulevard and other neighborhoods under the county's open-space master plan. "We can't create a new wilderness, but we can give people places they can go," he said.

© 1997 The Washington Post Company

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