Second of three articles
The vast new home development under construction here lies so far beyond the last ring of Washington suburbia that even rival developers marvel at its audacity.
The 3,200-home Huntfield community has been laid out according to neo-traditional town planning principles and designed with nostalgic American home architecture. It boasts front porches, lots of parks and an obelisk at the entrance. New four-bedroom homes sell for about $270,000 -- at least $150,000 less than the cost of a similar house closer to Washington.
But the real-life price for the vast majority of residents is a daily commute that takes about an hour or more. The subdivision of super-commuters sits across the Blue Ridge Mountains and more than 25 miles from the nearest job center, in Leesburg, and even farther from offices in Reston, Tysons Corner and Washington.
According to statistics provided by the developer on the first 100 home buyers, only one will work in West Virginia. Of the others, 72 will work in suburban Virginia, 13 in Maryland and five in Washington. The rest identified themselves as self-employed or retired.
"I'm going to be refreshing my Italian with some CDs during the drive," said Eugene Marino, an archaeologist who gets on the road at 5 most weekday mornings for a voyage from Charles Town to Arlington that takes an hour and 15 minutes each way. "It's not that bad. We wanted to have a nice place that we could afford -- so here we are."
Marino's next-door neighbors each spend an hour and 45 minutes commuting -- one to Capitol Hill and the other to the Pentagon.
No one, it seems -- not the developer, environmentalists or many Huntfield residents -- believes it makes sense to build homes for Washington area commuters so far from work.
There is plenty of undeveloped land much, much closer. But as Huntfield's developer and some residents see it, they're investing here because strict building restrictions on land in more convenient locations have contributed to a shortage of affordable home lots across the region. While pricier homes on large tracts of land are permitted in neighboring Loudoun County, for example, much of the land has been declared off-limits to conventional subdivisions.
Home buyers have long been willing to commute to find a home with a yard at the right price. But the typical commuting time for Huntfield residents is roughly double that of regional averages. The extra driving leads to more gasoline consumption, dirtier air and other environmental problems. The traffic is choking roads in rural areas.
"The land use regulations in Loudoun and Fairfax have done nothing to stop sprawl," said Paul J. Raco, the planner for Jefferson County, W.Va., which surrounds Huntfield. "They've only accelerated it. They've pushed it out here."
A Measured Trade-Off
Amy Schmitt, a Huntfield resident, gestures from a lawn chair on the wooden deck of her home. "It's nice out here -- look," she said.
The drawback is that her husband must commute to Reston and Sterling.
"People say, 'You moved where?' But when they come, they're pretty impressed," she said. "Why would I pay more when I can drive 30 minutes more and get something like this?"
Bruce Morrison, a BMW mechanic who moved to Huntfield from Loudoun County, seems just as pleased with the trade-off. It takes him an hour and 15 minutes to get to work. But, he said, appreciatively slapping the woodwork of his new home, "I couldn't touch a home like this in Loudoun County."
That kind of satisfaction leads many to argue that sprawl -- homes spread out on the landscape in a way that demands car travel -- is exactly what most Americans want. In fact, some describe such places as the object of what amounts to a spiritual quest.
"Millions of people every year leap out into the void, heading out to communities that don't exist, to office parks that are not yet finished, to places where everything is new," commentator David Brooks, a chronicler of suburbia in "On Paradise Drive," wrote recently. "This mysterious longing is the root of the great dispersal. To grasp that longing, you have to take seriously the central cliche of American life: the American dream."
Yet most Huntfield residents view their new neighborhood as a measured compromise between price and commuting. The economic forces that create home-building pressures on the region's fringes arise not from any vision of utopia but from the efforts of counties around Washington to build their tax base by attracting more workplaces than homes.
The economic forces that shaped Huntfield can be traced as far back as the early '90s in Fairfax County, when a jobs boom got underway along the Dulles corridor, the highway that runs from Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport.
Thousands of new employees working in the corridor were priced out of living in Fairfax County, at least in part because of strict home-building limits there. Citing reasons of environmental, agricultural and neighborhood preservation, Fairfax leaders over the years have limited about 55 percent of the residential land in the county to no more than two homes per acre.
For workers in the Dulles corridor, Fairfax's restrictions helped make Loudoun County a logical place to look for a home. It was the next county down the highway, and during the '90s, the number of Fairfax workers living in Loudoun doubled, helping to double the county's population, from 86,000 to 170,000.
The influx into Loudoun, however, set off a revolt. Led by a citizens group that called itself Voters to Stop Sprawl, voters installed a slow-growth set of leaders in the 1999 elections.
Jim Duszynski, chief executive officer of Greenvest, the developer of Huntfield, said it was then that the company locked onto its West Virginia property.
"We leapfrogged over western Loudoun to find the next logical place to build," Duszynski said. "We don't like to think of it as exporting sprawl, but it is clearly leapfrogging development."
Within two years, Loudoun's county board dropped the number of houses permitted there from about 187,000 to about 100,000. And although some question the commitment of the current board to the land-use reform, the western two-thirds of Loudoun remain off-limits to conventional subdivisions -- developers are generally limited to no more than one home per 10 acres.
It wasn't just about preserving the county's rural character, though that got lots of attention.
The leader of Loudoun's reformers, Scott K. York, then a Republican, talked less about the environmental effects of sprawl than its fiscal ones. A fiscal impact analysis done in preparation for new growth rules showed that the county could save $103 million annually by 2020 by slowing residential growth.
Cutting the number of homes reduced demand for schools and other services, which can drain government coffers. Instead, York wanted businesses to come to Loudoun because they typically generate more in taxes than they consume in services. He said he wanted "boardrooms, not bedrooms."
Ideally, the vast reserve Loudoun planners created with the home-building restrictions would have blocked the surge of sprawl outward from Washington, acting as a kind of firebreak in metropolitan building trends.
Some environmentalists who lobbied for Loudoun's home-building restrictions say that, as they anticipated, the restrictions have helped redirect growth toward Washington and its inner suburbs.
"A lot of people looking for homes have pushed inward toward the city," said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "You can see it in the house prices. They're bidding up prices in order to live in closer."
What the plan couldn't contain, however, were home buyers willing to spend time in cars for new homes in a pleasant neighborhood at a low price. They are skipping over Loudoun's rural area to Huntfield and other West Virginia locations.
West Virginia has long been an outpost of Washington suburbia, but Jefferson County's planner, Raco, has seen a marked rise in development roughly coinciding with the housing limits in Loudoun.
Many of Huntfield's residents have moved from Loudoun, where they had been renting or living in a townhouse. Several drew a connection between Loudoun's home-building restrictions and their arrival in Huntfield.
Echoing economists who have studied the issue, Morrison attributed the relatively high home prices in Loudoun, where he had been renting a home, to that county's home-building limits. "Had they not done the slow-growth initiative, houses would have been more affordable because there would have been more of them," he said. "With the prices out here, it was a no-brainer for us. That's the whole reason you'll find people are moving here."
Other Huntfield residents were slightly more sympathetic to Loudoun's restrictive zoning.
"I understand -- they want to keep that country living in Loudoun," said Sharon Renehan, a teacher in Loudoun, who with her husband, also a Loudoun teacher, recently sold their Loudoun townhouse for a new detached home in Huntfield.
The Renehans have one child and moved because they wanted space for more. "I'd like to live in Loudoun County," she said. "If things were more affordable, we'd still be there."
Marino similarly rejects the idea that Huntfield is an ideal.
"I do like the fact of being able to touch nature, of being able to have a metro connection and live in a more pastoral setting," he said. "But I've been enjoying the pastoral setting because I've been put out to pasture by the housing market. And the way it is, I think there's going to be a lot more horses like me heading west."
Given the success of places such as Huntfield at attracting buyers, some planners wonder whether the Washington region might be stretched even farther if, as projected, economic growth in the region continues and home-building restrictions limit the supply of home lots.
The growing comfort of car travel, some say, puts more distant locations around Washington within commuting reach.
"Because I can use my phone and I have a cup holder and I have a comfortable seat, people are willing to tolerate longer commutes," said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "You can continue your life while driving in ways that you couldn't five years ago. That's a big factor."
The Expansion Continues
Developers already are showing an interest in building even farther west than Charles Town, particularly as Jefferson County has begun to look askance at new home projects.
Jefferson County recently created a $7,000-per-home impact fee and began looking for ways to protect rural land, and as a result, developers have begun looking to neighboring Berkeley County, planners said.
In 2002, planners in Berkeley County were asked to process plans for 3,000 home lots; last year, that number tripled.
"It's been fairly dramatic," said Sue Ann Morgan, the county's planning director. "There is a shortage of buildable land in the region, and we are absolutely more attractive to home buyers and developers. We have no impact fees. We have no zoning. It looks like we're next."
The development boom left Jefferson County struggling to find a way to pay for a new high school. The influx of housing led to a sewer moratorium. And the crunch has poisoned relationships between Huntfield's newcomers and the rest of Charles Town.
"We're the target," said one neighbor, who moved to Huntfield in May with her husband, and declined to be identified by name because she works in the criminal justice system. "I hear people say, 'If it weren't for Huntfield, there wouldn't be this traffic,' 'If it weren't for Huntfield, we wouldn't have the sewer problem.' For months, I've been very cautious about telling people where I live."
The influx also has resulted in sharply divergent views on the future of Route 9, a scenic two-lane byway that brings Jefferson County commuters to job centers in Loudoun County and the rest of the Washington metropolis. Because of the onslaught of Washington commuters, who can back up traffic for miles, West Virginia's highway builders are planning to widen the road to four lanes. They've already started clearing the way for a new bridge over the Shenandoah River.
Loudoun officials, on the other hand, have resisted proposals to widen the roadway on their side. Much of Hillsboro, a historic town, would have to be demolished if the road were widened there.
Loudoun Supervisor Sarah R. Kurtz (D-Catoctin) declares the town "besieged" and resists growing pressure to widen the roadway. Asked how she would respond to the West Virginians who will be bottlenecked if she succeeds in keeping Route 9 two lanes, Kurtz responded with a question.
"Do I demolish a historical town for your commute? You have a choice to live anywhere you want. If this is what you chose, this traffic in Hillsboro is what you'll encounter."
Huntfield residents counter that Loudoun's building restrictions have pushed people -- including many of the county's own employees -- to live in West Virginia and commute.
"It's Loudoun County's police, their firefighters and their teachers who live out here," Schmitt said. "They have to get to work."