People moving out of 45 rural Virginia counties, including Madison and Page; growth seen in Culpeper, Fauquier and Warren
While neighboring counties to the north and east have grown in population, Rappahannock County since 2010 has seen its number of residents decline, according to a new study by the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia.
Each year the UVA center’s demographers develop and release population estimates for all of Virginia to illuminate population counts between the censuses, an important tool used by state agencies in planning — from developing budgets to determining salaries for public officials.
The center in 2010 counted 7,381 residents in Rappahannock (the 2010 U.S. Census similarly put the county’s population at 7,373), and by 2013 that number had grown slightly to 7,470. But by 2015 the population had dropped by 162 to 7,308, where it remained last year.
Meanwhile, populations since 2010 have increased in three of the five counties that border Rappahannock: Culpeper (2,699 new residents for a 2016 total of 49,388), Fauquier (a jump of 2,965 to 68,168) and Warren (an increase of 1,606 to 39,181).
Two other counties bordering Rappahannock to the south and west have seen their populations fall since 2010, namely Madison (209 fewer residents for a population of 13,099) and Page (down 456 people to 23,586). Indeed, the UVA study found that populations had fallen in a total of 45 rural Virginia counties during 2016.
One of the biggest takeaways from the study, released last week, is that Virginia’s population is growing at its slowest pace since the 1920s.
“The most obvious trend in the population estimates is how much more slowly Virginia and most of its communities are growing this decade,” the center’s Hamilton Lombard writes. “Since 2010, Virginia’s population has grown by a little over 410,000 residents. During the same period of the [previous] decade, Virginia added over 604,000 residents.”
He added that Virginia’s population is slowing in part “because many of its residents are leaving the state.”
“Due, in part, to the economic impact of the federal budget sequestration, more people in Northern Virginia are leaving the state, which is the predominant reason for the recent shift to more people moving out of — rather into — Virginia,” the study explains.
“Yet, counterintuitively, Northern Virginia’s share of the state’s population growth has increased from 55 percent between 2000 and 2006 to 63 percent since 2010,” it says. “Because of Northern Virginia’s large young population, the region has far more births than deaths, and continues to grow even with people leaving the region.”
Take Loudoun County west of Washington, D.C. Over the last six years the once-bucolic county surrounding Leesburg and Purcellville has become a full-fledged suburb of the nation’s capital, its population exploding from 312,311 residents in 2010 to 385,327 in 2016 — a growth rate of almost 24 percent.
If not here, residents of Rappahannock in the coming year will have new neighbors just across the county line. Ground will be broken soon just east of Amissville in Culpeper County, where a Washington, D.C.-based developer was recently given the go-ahead to build a cluster of 93 single-family homes on 125 acres at Clevenger’s Corner.
Another large-scale housing development is underway 18 miles north of Flint Hill in the west end of Marshall, where a Fairfax-based developer recently won approval from Fauquier County to build 351 new homes — 312 single-family and 39 townhomes. The same developer is also seeking further rezoning to build another 52 single-family homes near the village.
The big question posed for decades by residents of Rappahannock is how long the county can stave off similar urban sprawl that is clearly knocking at the door. What path the county eventually takes surrounding land use and housing will be more apparent with future comprehensive planning.
In a farewell interview with this newspaper in December, outgoing Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Jim Northup warned Rappahannock and other counties bordering the park not to “kill the golden goose.” He said potential development around the park’s boundary is already a “significant threat” and it could adversely impact tourism.
In 2015, upwards of 1.4 million visitors to Shenandoah spent $87 million in the park and surrounding counties and towns, such as Sperryville and Washington.
“This park is a huge economic engine for the surrounding communities,” reminded Northup. “In fact, these people are coming here to enjoy these magnificent views. And there are two things that will damage those views: one is . . . urban sprawl. Nobody minds looking at a pastoral scene . . . but they don’t want to see housing developments” and other construction.
Another hot-button issue, detailed in the UVA study, is the lack of young people, especially families, in rural counties like Rappahannock. One familiar refrain here is that there’s little affordable housing and/or employment in a county teeming with “weekenders” and retirees.
Which partly explains Rappahannock’s stagnant population.
“An aging population has . . . resulted in more deaths in rural communities and fewer births,” the center points out.
Still, while the 2016 study finds “fewer people, particularly families” are moving into Virginia’s rural counties, none are as close to a major metropolis as Rappahannock. The question, therefore, is how long the county can remain as it is today.
By proximity alone, in other words, Rappahannock County is facing outside pressures unlike ever before — even with a declining population.