Thursday, July 21, 2005

Endless Growth of DC Metro Area Threatens Eastern Panhandle

Today's Washington Post had two front page with two stories of great significance to West Virginia: the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court and preliminary approval by the Loudon County, Va. Board of Supervisors of strict limits on new housing developments. So, what's so significant about a Virginia county's zoning laws?

The Washington, DC metro area is one of the nation's fastest growing urban areas and, unfortunately, one of if not THE worst for suburban sprawl. Fairfax County, Virginia, where a then four-lane highway to serve as a bypass of the nation's capital was built through farmland in the 1950s and 60s, and now the infamously gridlocked Capital Beltway, has grown from just over 275,000 residents in the 1960s to become the first county in the Old Dominion to eclipse the 1,000,000 resident milestone, a mark reached one year ago. Fairfax is completely built out--there is no more vacant land. Price William County, to the southwest, similarly grew from just over 50,000 in 1960 to over 336,000 today. To the northwest, Loudon County grew from just under 25,000 in 1960 to almost 240,000 today.

The upsides to this growth include the tens of thousands of people that have moved to Northern Virginia to take part in a thriving regional economy; real estate values have skyrocketed and made existing homeowners very well-off. However, the downsides that we have only begun to see include the extreme difficulty in affording a home close to work, skyrocketing property tax bills for homeowners, the endless devouring of farmland for more strip malls, suburban office complexes, and subdivisions where every home is pre-sold at above the asking price before the first shovel of dirt is turned, and the endless traffic jam from Hell. I won't even begin to discuss the fact that public servants like teachers, police officers, firefighters, etc., cannot afford to live in the communities they serve or anywhere close, for that matter.

And then we have the infrastructure issues. Virginia upgraded I-66 from the Capital Beltway to Manassas to 8 lanes just a few years ago. Almost as soon as it was complete, the widened freeway became the parking lot VDOT hoped it would no longer be. Indeed, I-66 is clogged constantly all the way from Washington to its current western terminus at I-81 75 miles to the west. Indeed, if the same freeway mileage as exists in Los Angeles were built in NoVa, it too would turn into a parking lot almost from Day 1.

So, what in the world does all this have to do with West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle? The EP is the next target of developers lusting for cheap land to airlift and drop in tens of thousands of homes as they have done to the once picturesque countryside of Price William and Loudon counties. West Virginia is unable and politically would be unwilling to build the public infrastructure necessary to support the addition of tens of thousands of residents to the eastern tip of our state at the exclusion of long-promised projects in the rest of the state. Current commitments for building roads and water and sewer works will take our state 200 years to complete with the funds available. The people who live in the 90% of the state that needs infrastructure as a predicate for avoiding further economic decline will not stand by diverting all the money to the 10% of the state that is growing, and growing only because of a land rush mentality fueled by risky and unsustainable mortgage lending practices.

The growth that has already encroached on our Eastern Panhandle has already done enough. Already, home prices in the EP have tripled over the last decade. Teachers and police officers who teach the children and protect the public cannot afford to live in Berkeley or Jefferson counties. Rent for an efficiency apartment--essentially a hotel room with a mini-fridge and hot plate--runs at over $800 a month, or more than half the monthly take-home pay of a beginning teacher in West Virginia. The average home now costs over $250,000--triple the price of a similar home in almost every other county in West Virginia. For those who bought their home long ago, skyrocketing property values have translated directly into skyrocketing property taxes that are putting the squeeze of people who bought a home long ago with an assumption of a stable cost of ownership. Thousands of new homes have devoured the countryside. The roads are clogged with constant congestion that will only get worse.

I will write later on some of the solutions I think West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia need to jointly undertake before the problems mushroom even further. But if we don't do something soon, Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan, and maybe even Hampshire and Hardy counties will have clogged roads, overcrowded schools, unaffordable housing, and the rest of West Virginia will be stuck paying for the kinds of infrastructure improvements that this will require and will therefore have to forego any attempt at fulfilling the billions of dollars of promises that have already been made.