The Washington region is larger than we customarily define it, and is rapidly expanding beyond its official metropolitan boundaries. Washingtonians continue to move outward in search of affordable housing, lower taxes, a rural environment and a life removed from metropolitan problems. This is causing the development of a whole new tier of suburbs on the fringes of Metropolitan Washington.

The 14 jurisdictions of the metropolitan fringe are capturing an ever-increasing proportion of the residential growth of the greater Washington region. Though they had only 18 percent of the region's growth in the 1960s, they captured 67 percent of it in the 1970s. And in the one-year period from 1977 to 1978, while the metropolitan area grew by a mere 1,000 persons, the fringe jurisdictions grew by 24,000.

The main story behind metropolitan fringe growth lies in the metropolitan area itself. It is a story of a vital metropolitan economy with most of the net job growth occurring in the suburbs, and of highway improvements that have brought the fringe counties within commuting distance of those jobs. It is a story of skyrocketing housing prices caused by market demand, expensive land, regulations and limitations on sewer capacity. It is also a story of metropolitan suburbs perceived by many as having the congestion and complexities that were once thought to be the exclusive province of the central city.

Growth on the fringe also means that the trends toward childless households, urban neighborhood revitalization and energy conservation have yet to change the way a significant number of Washington families live. Many Washingtonians are still having children, still looking for a detached house with a yard, and still leading lives that are highly dependent on the automobile and gasoline.

The outward movement of population is occurring unevenly and with different characteristics in different parts of the gringe, and the response to growth varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Still, in one way or another, all the gringe jurisdictions face a set of new challenges: challenges to their planning capabilities, challenges to their economies, challenges to their schools and challenges to their governmental structure.

Many households are attracted to the fringe principally by its affordable housing. Some indication can by seen in a comparison of sale prices of the same model house being constructed by the same builder in several different jurisdictions. The most striking difference occurs between Frederick and Montgomery counties. The house -- a four-bedroom, two-story structure with a full basement on one-quarter of an acre -- sells for $94,300 in the Shady Grove area of Montgomery County, but only $77,300 in Frederick, about 20 miles to the north. The same house on one-third of an acre sells for $74,900 in southern Prince George's County and Charles County, but $86,215 on half an acre in central Prince George's County. It costs $86,400 on one-quarter of an acre in southern Fairfax, but only $75,000 on one-third of an acre in Spotsylvania County.

Planners in the fringe say that at leat some of their new migrants are running away from school busing for racial balance. Others say semigrants are looking for a more traditional, disciplined environment for their children, away from the drugs and social problems that they see in metropolitan schools. Wether or not the fringe county schools actually offer a better environment is another question.

Who is moving to the fringe? The full answer to that question will not be known until 1980 Census figures are available, but some general characteristics are clear now. Unlike households participating in inner-city revitalization, the new households moving into the fringe are typically families with children. The movement also is largely a white phenomenon, as can be seen in school enrollment figures. While black school enrollment in the fringe increased by 7 percent in the 1970s, white school enrollment was up by 14 percent.

New development has forced the fringe jurisdictions to face a host of new problems, though it also has given them some new opportunities as well. Both the problems and opportunities have caused many citizens and officials to rethink their attitudes toward government, toward planning and toward their economies. While many believe that uncontrolled growth leads to the desecration of farmland and inefficient provision of services, growth to others represents new opportunities. Growth can offer a farmer the opportunity to sell his land and thus be secure in his retirement years. It offers new jobs and public services to many citizens.

The best hope for growth management lies in the separate efforts of the individual jurisdictions. At present there are no institutions, short of the state legislatures (which show no sign of embarking on any strong land-use planning measures) through which fringe counties can collaborate in their land-use policies. Thus, strict land-use controls in one county may just serve to push rapid development to the next, as is happening in several cases.

The forces that have produced fringe growth in the Washington area show little sign of abating. Citizen resistance to the development, the shortage of sewer capacity in some jurisdictions, regulatory impediments and high land costs will continue to restrain housing production and raise housing prices in the metropolitan area. As long as this housing price gap exists, and is wide enough, it will temper any restraining effects that the high price of gasoline might have on dispersion.

A second reason for expecting fringe development to continue is the expectation that employment opportunities will continue to expand in the outer parts. It is already happening in Howard County. Thirty percent of full-time workers moving there from the Washington metropolitan area work in Howard County itself.

A third reason for expecting fringe development to continue is the fact that any further transportation improvements will make the fringe counties even more accessible. Of the greatest current significance is the imminent completion of Interstate 66. Metrorail suburban lines, too, may be expected to make some contribution.

One implication of fringe growth is the dilution of the collective ability of metropolitan area jurisdictions to solve common problems, as the scope of those problems is pushed beyond the reach of agencies such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Metropolitan area local governments have been working to solve environmental, transportation and economic problems through the development of policies calling for compact growth with access to mass transit.

There may not be much that public policy can do either to change people's proclivities or to alter the market. If implemented early enough, however, public policy might be able to prevent fringe growth from becoming a sprawl. It might also be able to ensure that much of the prime agricultural land is preserved. This is largely up to the fringe jurisdictions themselves, although public policy at the region, state and federal levels can be expected to reinforce local efforts.