Growth finds its way to Hagerstown

Jobs: Low unemployment is a big upside to the urban growth that has awakened once-sleepy Hagerstown.

October 29, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Every day, thousands of people stream onto interstates and cross into Maryland to work and shop in a burgeoning hub, a place of spiking land values and abundant retail.

Not Baltimore. Not Columbia. Not even Frederick.

It's Hagerstown. The longtime rural outpost is transforming into a real urban center as growth insinuates itself around the edges.

This once sleepy area is expanding the runway at the local airport to accept regional jets and is preparing to welcome a large FedEx Ground distribution center while dealing with residential sprawl that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Twenty years ago, as manufacturing opportunities dwindled, a quarter of the work force in Washington County was out of work. This year the unemployment rate is below 5 percent. The majority of commuters leaving two counties in Pennsylvania and another two in West Virginia are heading to the area for their paychecks.

More people working in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs are buying new homes around Hagerstown in a repetition of familiar emigration, and more people have been lured by job growth. Businesses look at the junction of Interstates 70 and 81 south of town and decide it's a strategic place to be. The area appears to be living up to its old, hopeful nickname, "Hub City."

"Hagerstown isn't any longer that far out," said Shannon Jones, regional marketing manager for Starbucks, which is looking for space in town.

Rod Shoop, the county administrator, puts it another way: "You know, our time has come."

Residents, seeing the effects of fast growth in Frederick, have alternately dreaded and anticipated this turning-point moment on their side of South Mountain.

There are advantages to living in a county that is larger than Anne Arundel but has a quarter of the population. In this county of 132,000, named after George Washington when the founding father was still a general, traffic jams are uncommon. Green, rolling farmland abounds.

County officials are eager to preserve that rural character, especially as the forces of change start to chip away at it. The 1990s brought about 500 new homes annually, but the county issued permits for 780 last year and have issued more than 800 this year.

"If we develop from one end to the other, it's not going to be Washington County anymore - it's going to be west Frederick," said Stephen Goodrich, interim planning director for the county.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a Smart Growth proponent, said Washington County's boom has elements of sprawl but that the county's emergence as an employment hub is encouraging. Steered wisely, development can re-energize Hagerstown's old downtown, she said.

But topography no longer can control growth.

"Our mountains aren't high enough," Schmidt-Perkins said. "There is sort of a psychological hurdle there as you go over South Mountain, but it's not enough."

To seal the floodgates while they revisit local zoning regulations, the all-Republican board of county commissioners instituted in October last year a yearlong building moratorium on sizable new proposals to develop agricultural areas. Last week, the commissioners extended the freeze for another year.

Meanwhile, they're considering a proposal to require 5 to 30 acres of land per house in rural communities now zoned for 1 to 3 acres per house.

The rezoning has the makings of the kind of fight the fast-growing Baltimore suburbs are familiar with. More than 2,200 farmers and rural landowners have signed a petition to protest the loss in value that would come with a down-zoning - now more than ever.

"As the inventory dried up in Frederick County, the demand for housing ... skipped over the mountain," said Rocky Mackintosh, who owns a land consulting and brokerage company in Frederick and negotiates deals in Washington County.

The average home in the county cost about $170,000 last month. That might seem cheap compared with prices in Central Maryland, but it's 20 percent higher than last year's average, a much bigger jump than usual.

Lots in new subdivisions have nearly doubled in price to $70,000 in the past year, said Don Beaver, who handles business and residential real estate for Century 21 in Hagerstown. An acre of commercial or industrial land that would have cost $35,000 or so a year ago costs $45,000 to $50,000 now, he said.

"I've been selling for 13 years, and this year without a doubt we're at our very top in sales," said SuZanne Glocker, a local Coldwell Banker Realtor. "It's a boom year. Values are escalating like crazy."

She said she doubts that the residential boom will extend much farther west, at least not propelled by people commuting from Washington and Baltimore, which are about 70 miles from Hagerstown.

But the intersection of I-70 and I-81 makes it easier for residents, and businesses to locate there.

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