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June 23, 2015

Demographics and housing challenge Fauquier’s future

We have an oversupply of large-lot, single-family housing and we have a shortage of almost everything else.
— Ed McMahon, the senior fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute
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Imagine a Fauquier County with thousands of suburban homes that relatively few want to buy, businesses that can’t find workers and an aging citizenry resembling that of Florida.

Demographics and development patterns pose significant challenges to Fauquier’s future, a pair of experts told an audience of 300 people Monday night in Warrenton.

“There will be winners and losers,” said Matt Thornhill, founder and president of The Boomer Project, based in Richmond. “The question is, which side of this are you gonna be on?”

Mr. Thornhill and Ed McMahon, the senior fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, spoke and answered questions for more than two hours at “Preparing for Tomorrow: Advancing a Community Conversation.”

County government and the Town of Warrenton sponsored the event, during which the speakers reviewed statistics and case studies while offering strategies for community and economic development.

“It used to be we were optimistic,” Mr. Thornhill said to the audience at Highland School. “Now we’re not so sure. The only thing we’re certain of is that things are gonna change.”

In Fauquier — as in much of the nation — that change includes a rapidly-aging citizenry.

Baby diaper sales nationwide have fallen 8 percent, while adult diaper sales have increased 20 percent, Mr. Thornhill noted.

By 2025, Fauquier’s senior citizens will outnumber school-age children for the first time in county history. The number of those older than 65 will increase 90 percent between 2010 and 2030.

The traditional “pyramid” — with more young people at the bottom and fewer older folks at the top — will disappear, according to Mr. Thornhill.

For Fauquier, the preferences of Millennials — born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s — pose additional challenges. “Co-dependent, purposeful and ambitious,” those young adults generally prefer urban lifestyles, with less dependence upon cars and with less desire to work for large, bureaucratic companies than to join startups, he said.

Mr. Thornhill described Millennials as “collaborative and connected” citizens who like “community places and hyper-sharing” of ideas, experiences, vehicles and housing. “Why would you fight this? This creates community . . . . They were raised to be ‘green’ (environmentally conscious).”

But, he added: “You need to have a place for them to live, and that’s gonna be hard.”

Mr. McMahon agreed: “We have an oversupply of large-lot, single-family housing and we have a shortage of almost everything else.”

Seventy-five percent of American households have no school-age children, he added. Fauquier reflects that trend, with declining public school enrollment, despite the county’s consistent population growth.

But, the two experts suggested Fauquier can attract Millennials and entrepreneurial Baby Boomers — born between 1946 and ’66 — with a combination of:

• Preservation of important architecture and open spaces, along with development of outdoor recreational opportunities.

• Creation of desirable housing. “There is a market for walkable, downtown housing in every small town in America,” Mr. McMahon said.

• Transportation options. “If you design around cars, you get more cars,” he said. “It’s hard to spend money in cars.”

• A clear vision for the community’s future.

• Greater citizen involvement. “You should engage your young people,” Mr. Thornhill said. “They are part of the labyrinth. So, if you don’t have a young, shadow government engaged, reach out to them.”

The model for economic development has changed, he said.

“It used to be: Attract business and people will come. Now, it’s the other way around.”

Mr. McMahon used the example of Brandywine, an investment fund that moved from suburban Philadelphia to Jackson Hole, Wyo., because of its founder’s affinity for fly-fishing.

“You can run a business from anywhere,” he said, adding that Fauquier has attributes that can attract entrepreneurs who value high “quality of life.”

Traditional concerns, such as the perceived parking shortage in downtown Warrenton, often get overstated, Mr. McMahon added.

“Parking is important, but many times, other things are more important . . . . There’s nothing people in town want more than look at other people.” He suggested creating more gathering spaces and noted the popularity of sidewalk cafes.

Mr. McMahon also talked about a Barnes & Noble bookstore in crowded downtown Bethesda that does 20 percent more business than one in a more suburban setting on Rockville Pike, with lots of visible parking.

High-quality development, with alternatives to travel by car, always produces a better return on investment, he added.

“Successful suburbs will have mixed-use centers,” Mr. McMahon said. “Why is it that property values in Reston are 100 percent higher than in Sterling?”

Whatever happens, Fauquier’s population will increase by a projected 20,000 in the next 15 years.

“Where are you gonna put them?” Mr. McMahon said. “The default position is we get more of the same (large-lot, single-family homes) . . . . The question is, where would you put them if you had your druthers?”

Austin, Denver and Portland have succeeded in creating walkable communities that attract Millennials, active Boomers and economic investment, Mr. Thornhill said. In Virginia, he citied Charlottesville, Lexington and Lynchburg as small cities on similar paths.

“Can small towns do it?” he asked.

Mr. McMahon suggested Warrenton and Fauquier can succeed, if they have vision and if they demand high quality from those who want to build commercial and residential developments here.

Calling the next couple of decades “The Great Reset,” he added: “Unplanned change will destroy everything you care about in Fauquier County. It’s about what you have, asset-based development.”

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Jim Griffin · July 2, 2015 at 12:41 pm
SwissMiss: My sincere apologies. I was wrong about your comments and I apologize for that. The fellow seemed well-intended and anything that leads to sincere discussion is for the best, but I do agree with you: Actions speak louder than words.
BikerFriendlyGal · July 2, 2015 at 12:34 pm
ThePlainsman, you have missed my point by a Plainsman country mile. Mr. McMahon's comments, insight and recommendations were EXCELLENT, both in 2005 and in 2015. It's all the other folks in positions of change that have not acted on his suggestions that rub me the wrong way. I too am interested in hearing a wide range of views but acting on none of them is inexcusable.
Jim Griffin · July 1, 2015 at 9:06 pm
SwissMiss: Clearly, he rubs you the wrong way. For the sake of discussion, why hold it against him that we've not followed his advice? Besides, any thought provoking discourse on the future of our community is worth having. I am interested in hearing a wide range of views about the best course for the area.
BikerFriendlyGal · June 26, 2015 at 7:48 pm
I wonder how many of our elected and appointed representatives that were gushing about the future prospects resulting from this presentation were aware that Mr. McMahon made many of the same suggestions almost ten years ago to another gathering of citizens and town and county officials. I wish I could mention one improvement since then that I could attribute to Mr. McMahons comments but I can't. Here is a story that reported Mr. McMahons presentation back then. Not much has changed.
farmbum · June 25, 2015 at 9:49 am
Fauquier is dying. We have a serious lack of infrastructure - "you can run a business from anywhere", not here. High speed internet access is not readily available, anywhere. Water and basic Sewer services are not available, anywhere. Service districts are not available, anywhere.

Ask the kids where they are going when they graduate, anywhere but here.

Anxious to see how the Catlett Sewer proposal works out. Possibly built on the backs of existing taxpayers. There was once a developer who would have footed the bill and created jobs in the immediate area.

Someone mentioned VRE, Catlett again could benefit from that. But alas, there is no infrastructure to support growing businesses in that area. Too bad, for all of us.
gh351 · June 24, 2015 at 10:02 am
Fauquier is "The Land that Time Forgot."

I grew up in Fauquier and came back here to raise my children. Since the Board of Supervisors killed all the build rights in 1989, choices for homes are either 1970's relics with nice yards, or McMansions on postage-stamp-sized yards. There is nothing in between.

My wife wanted a newer home, so we bought in Brookside. Now we hate it. The kids want a big yard. We want privacy and room to grow. But we live in a cluster of Fairfax with a Fauquier commute.

So we're leaving. Warren County is now what Fauquier was when I grew up here. We can have a new home on 5 or 10 acres. It's only a couple of more exits on 66. I can handle that.

So, PEC, Holder Trumbo, the Old Money on your Hobby Farms, I am what you call "Urban Sprawl" (meaning, people who have to work for a living). I get the message. You don't want me here. So I'll tell you what the future of Fauquier is - old people living in 70 year old houses, gradually being swallowed up by Brookside(s), until younger people realize that they're might as well live in Fairfax County and everything comes crashing down.
J Obrokta · June 24, 2015 at 7:23 am
Huge disagreement with Traffic (is that a last name or first name?)

I am one of the older millennials, having been born in 1981. Millennials definitely have different values than previous generations of Americans, as I can attest from personal experience and as it has also been proven through repeated studies by PEW and others. Past generations loved their cars, large homes, and private yards. This next generation of home buyers seriously dislikes having to depend on cars and would jump at a chance to buy a home within walking or biking distance of shops, restaurants, etc. Young people don't want large yards but they want shared community spaces that they can enjoy but not be responsible to mow, etc.

These two experts are correct in saying that without planning, the default form of development is suburban housing. In that future, our county will eventually end up looking like the next PWC with housing everywhere but no convenience because of traffic and no real community either.

Our county could look very different, though, if we recognize the sorts of housing the millennials prefer, and then make that come into existence with a little bit of government intervention.

Our best chance to create a different form of development than the traditional suburban sprawl exists in Bealeton. To make it happen, we should focus on the VRE going in, and also HOW it goes in. Without planning it will look like the platform in Nokesville, which is really just a parking lot with no real housing, shopping, or convenience.

With planning, the VRE station could be the hub of a new sort of mini-urban center. Imagine fairly dense housing, shopping, businesses, etc. in a tight area within maybe 2 miles of the station, surrounded then by farmland.

To make it happen we would need to do a few things, like ensure that the train platform is surrounded by an area that can be developed into shops and businesses rather than just parking lots. Sidewalks would need to connect the area. A short-term subsidy to create a small bus system that picks people up at the front of their development and takes them to the VRE platform and shopping area may be a worthwhile investment.

If we had a mini-urban area like this then millennials who work in DC would likely prefer to move to Fauquier to take advantage of that situation. Bealeton could become a model for what 21st century development can look like, rather than a repetition of the past century's focus on sprawling suburbs.

Most of the rest of the developed world has actually done this really well - for an idea of what this would look like check out most parts of Japan, most of Europe, or even poorer areas in East Asia or Latin America. The suburban sprawl is really only an American problem, and millennials will change that. We should ensure that Fauquier is on the forefront of that to help prevent the gentrification of the county while also protecting ourselves from the fate of suburban areas like PWC.
Jim Griffin · June 23, 2015 at 8:04 pm
The elephant in the room is connectivity. Lack of serious bandwidth will keep and drive lots of relatively young and actually young people away. This area needs a commitment to data infrastructure. Properties without access will fall quickly to developer investment and connectivity will follow the high-density redevelopment. If there is a preference to retain some of the current character then data access must progress to modern standards.
Traffic · June 23, 2015 at 3:28 pm
I don't agree with this statement...
"those young adults generally prefer urban lifestyles, with less dependence upon cars and with less desire to work for large, bureaucratic companies than to join startups, he said"

I think the young adults WANT to work for large companies and don't mind living in a city environment where there is excitement and a lot more money to be made. They would shudder to think of not having a car. And the older people like the quietness of a small town(which this area is really not anymore in most spots except oldtown)and maybe would prefer to walk to the coffee shop. If you want a rural environment around here you need big bucks. Your looking at close to $500,000 for a shack on 5 acres. You need a city job for that purchase(so plan on commuting) Just start building some senior citizen housing or adult communities. They are the people with the money around here. And, there's nothing wrong with that! The young people will move up after they made their money in the city or the urban sprawl has finally made it all the way up.

TodNehman · June 23, 2015 at 3:03 pm
Has anyone here ever attended a Board of Supervisors meeting? Or ever tried to get any thing passed by them that is community oriented? Snow ball's chance in you know where. Look at the Greenway path? Built in the 80's they are still taking credit for it. The extension they promised to be done by Spring 2015? NOT EVEN this speaker is right things are not optimistic for this county and its stuck in the mud mentality.
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