WASHINGTON – The Hagerstown metropolitan area is Maryland’s fastest growing, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, despite a slowdown prompted in part by the sputtering national economy.
The Hagerstown-Martinsburg, W.Va., metro area, which includes Washington County in Maryland, as well as Morgan and Berkeley Counties in West Virginia, grew 1.9 percent from July 2006 through July 2007. Washington County is the larger than the others combined, with a population of 145,113 as of July 2007.
However, Washington County Planning Director Michael Thompson said development has declined since the census analysis.
Development peaked in Washington County between 2004 and 2006, by Thompson’s estimation. Census data supports him — from July 2005 to July 2006, the metro area’s growth rate was 2.7 percent.
The county and state tried to limit growth and spur more responsible development by enacting taxes on new homes and requiring adequate public facilities such as schools and plumbing.
“Now, we have a lot of areas in the county that are basically shut down to residential development until we get some more schools built,” Thompson said.
But one of the major reasons for Washington County’s shrinking housing market is the economy — particularly the high price of gas. Much of the county’s growth came from workers in the Washington and Baltimore areas moving farther out to take advantage of inexpensive housing.
“For a while there, we were seeing a lot of people coming up from the metro areas, and they were willing to drive another 40 minutes,” Thompson said. “I think (the high price of gas is) going to have an impact, I know people who commute and they’re trying to start a carpool now if they can.”
A big portion of Washington County’s influx came from Frederick County, according to Mark Goldstein, an economist at the Maryland Department of Planning.
“If you look at migration trends over several decades, the trend is to move out — a longstanding trend probably in earnest since the 1970s,” he said.
The majority of people coming into Washington County come from Frederick County, with a fair portion coming from Montgomery County, according to data Goldstein compiled from 2006 tax returns.
But people are moving even farther than Washington County, according to Goldstein’s data, with a large numbers moving to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“Berkeley County is on the very cusp of where people are willing to move out to commute from,” said Matthew Mullenax, geographic information systems coordinator at the Berkeley County Planning Commission.
And while Mullenax said they’ve had a “tremendous boom,” there’s still been a slight slowdown.
“You’ll see a 100-acre subdivision that has only one or two houses built, and all the infrastructure is there — roads, sewer and water, things like that,” he said. “They’re just laying there and waiting for somebody to come by and build a lot or order a house.”
Better land and housing values often prompt the move to more bucolic areas like Washington County, Goldstein said.
“The rise in housing cost and prices probably pushed out stronger migration from counties with more expensive housing,” he said.
“They came primarily because the cost of housing was so cheap here, and of course the cost of gas wasn’t so high here either at that time,” he said. “People used to say the mountain was the barrier between us and the metro area, well, all of a sudden that mountain seemed to get flat for a while there.”