WASHINGTON – When the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area logged a population increase last decade, the most dramatic changes came in outlying counties like Charles and Frederick counties — and county leaders said they know why.
In these counties, a long-held rural character is giving way in some places to the spread of the D.C. suburbs, as people are willing to travel farther for their jobs in order to take advantage of well-regarded school systems, lower crime rates and relatively inexpensive housing, they said.
“It’s a very safe county,” said Candice Quinn Kelly, president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners. “We have some lovely housing stock. It tends to be a little less expensive because we’re farther out from the District.”
Bud Humbert, vice president of the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors, said he has many clients from Prince George’s County looking in Charles County, which is close enough to their D.C. jobs or the inner suburbs that they can still commute, but far enough from the urban hustle-and-bustle that they can expect to find affordable large houses or spacious lots.
“You get a real taste for the country, but you also have the real assets of living (near) a city” in Charles County, Humbert said.
From 2000 to 2010, Charles County’s population rose by 21.6 percent, going from 120,546 to 146,551, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, non-Hispanic whites dropped as a proportion of the county’s total population from 67.3 percent to 48.4 percent.
In a decade, the county went from being whiter than the state of Maryland to being a minority-majority jurisdiction.
“You think about the notion of white flight, there’s also the notion of black flight, or Latino flight,” said Kris Marsh, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who specializes in the study of the black middle class.
“As Prince George’s County moves from a white-dominated county to a black-dominated county, there could be some black households that decide that they don’t want to live in a black-dominated community, so they move out to Howard County … or out to Charles County,” Marsh explained.
Encouraging racial diversity in public schools should make Charles County “a model for integrated communities,” Kelly said.
“Our kids are modern,” Kelly said. “They don’t see color. They don’t see differences. They don’t see ethnicities. They’re all just kids growing up together.”
Despite efforts to diversify, Humbert sees a county that is more segregated than Kelly would suggest.
“You’ve still got a bit of a separation, I think,” said Humbert. “It’s either a habit or it’s a comfort level. But I think that’ll change eventually.”
Humbert, who does business throughout Southern Maryland, said many of his black clients tend to want larger homes of the sort being built in St. Charles and Waldorf, while many white clients are attracted to more rural areas around Bryans Road, across the Potomac River from sparsely developed Mount Vernon in Virginia.
Housing prices in Charles County remain low, which Humbert said is a major draw.
“A condo in the District, I mean … right downtown, it’s gonna cost you seven-$800,000,” said Humbert. “Now, $700,000 in Charles County gets you three acres and a nice home.”
Charles County’s infrastructure appears nearly new. In contrast to the potholed and worn roads common in Prince George’s County, Charles County’s thoroughfares are wide and mostly smooth, with bright white and yellow lines.
St. Charles Towne Center and other recent mall developments have been deliberately planned, unlike the older, dilapidated strip malls seen in Prince George’s County communities.
“We’ve got the most successful mall around,” Humbert boasted of St. Charles Towne Center, the commercial anchor of the St. Charles development at Waldorf’s southern end. When he was young, he added, “We used to go up to the malls in Prince George’s. Then they all closed down. … Now (Prince George’s County residents) all come down here.”
Aubrey D. Thagard, a Prince George’s economic development official, said the county is working to revitalize the retail sector, bolster public safety and reform high housing costs and an underperforming school system, which he acknowledged spurred migration out of the county last decade.
“We’re not just hoping to improve them, we are improving them,” Thagard said. “What we hope to do is continue to market the county as an attractive option for people from all walks of life.”
Between Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, and Frederick County to its north, the differences are less apparent.
Montgomery County’s population swelled with new immigrants, rendering it a minority-majority county last decade. At the same time, IRS data indicates a significant number of its residents fled to Frederick and Howard counties.
Even at the height of the recession in 2009 and 2010, new homes were being built in Frederick and nearby small towns like New Market.
The president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, Blaine R. Young, said Frederick County’s 19.5 percent population growth last decade was fueled by its open spaces, low crime, less taxes, good public schools and cheaper housing — the same forces at work in Charles County.
“We have an incredible quality of life to offer in Frederick County,” said Young. “We’re a very welcoming community, and we’re a safe community, and we’ve got a great school system, and we’re doing well economically.”
Frederick County’s population grew about twice as quickly as the national average last decade. At the same time, the proportion of non-Hispanic white county residents declined more than 10 points.
“Obviously, it brings a lot more diversity, which is a good thing,” Young said. “We have seen businesses that have opened up that do cater to certain residents from certain origins of country, and we have seen a lot more diversity in the kinds of events that we do.”
Increasingly, Kelly said, Charles County is becoming a D.C. suburb. She said most county residents now commute across the county line for work.
The picture is similar in Frederick County, where Young said about 40 percent of full-time workers have jobs outside the county.
A common theme regionally is that pockets of greater minority population locate along arterial roads linking the suburbs with the District, including in upper Charles County.
“We’ve had an influx of citizens … (who have) more in common with suburban and metropolitan areas,” said Kelly, who led Charles County to full membership in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments last year. “We get the benefit of families moving from Prince George’s County, (including) professionals.”
The migration to Charles County, while substantial, has been hampered by long commute times and a lack of public transportation.
“In order to move forward with economic development, we have to have better transportation,” said Kelly.
The terminus of the Washington Metrorail’s Green Line at Branch Avenue lies 13 miles north of the county line. Humbert said he would like to see the line extended south to Charles County.
“It would be a marvelous thing for our community,” Humbert said. “Southern Maryland is the only place (in the state) without any sort of mass transit.”
Calvert County, which is considered by the census as part of the Washington metropolitan area, also experienced major growth last decade, surging 19 percent from 74,563 residents in 2000 to 88,737 residents now. But Board of County Commissioners President Gerald W. Clark expressed an entirely different attitude toward growth than his counterparts in Charles and Frederick counties.
“In Calvert County, our town centers and our areas tend to be more rural,” said Clark. “We don’t have a lot of multifamily housing or apartments or things like that, where younger professional people would come.”
To keep Calvert County a rural community and curb its population growth, Clark said, the commission has halved residential zoning density twice, in 1999 and 2003.
Clark also said the commission has no desire to join the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“We just don’t want to be part of Washington, D.C.,” Clark exclaimed. “We all moved down here to get away from it!”
Frederick County may be inadvertently curbing its growth by working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to deport illegal immigrants.
“Frederick County sometimes gets this perception that we’re not friendly to immigrants,” Young said, a reputation that he said is undeserved.
Young added, “The folks that I meet, that I’m talking to, from different areas, whether it’s Burma, China, El Salvador, wherever it may be … are hardworking folks, they’re there for the American dream, and a lot of them have bought into the same dream we were raised with.”