County seat today would not qualify as a town in 1796 or 2017
It’s a good thing Washington became a “town” in 1796 because there aren’t enough folks around today to earn the designation.
The newly revised Town of Washington Comprehensive Plan, which was approved by the Town Council on Monday evening, points out that when established as a “town” by the General Assembly in 1796, Washington had the “necessary population of 200 persons.”
Not any longer.
Whereas 300 people lived in the town in 1900, the 2015 estimate can muster only 128 — down from 183 citizens in 2000 and 247 in 1980.
And, the planning document warns: “Without adoption of plans to increase available housing that meet the needs of a wider age range of families, the town is likely to continue to experience a decline in its population.”
Among reasons for the decline: disappearing families, especially those with young children.
“In the 1990 census, the town had 33 children between the ages of 5 and 17,” the plan states. “The 2010 census indicated the town had only six children between the ages of 5 and 17.”
As recently as 2000, 14 percent of the town’s residents were under 18 years of age, while 20 percent were age 65 years and over. In 2010, the most recent census year, 7 percent were under 18 and 26 percent were over 65 years old.
Also in 2000, 15 percent of the population was of African-American or Hispanic origin, yet by 2010 that number had dropped to 7 percent — and is arguably even lower today.
“These numbers clearly show an aging population and a declining minority population,” the document states.
One factor in the population shift, in keeping with current trends, is “the conversion of some homes to alternative uses such as B&B, rental property, guest rooms, or purchase by absentee owners that use the property for weekend use and are not full time residents of the town.”
Indeed, since the 2010 census, only one new residential property has been built within the town’s boundaries.
Even historic Avon Hall, which was sold more than a year ago to a couple that is painstakingly restoring the mansion to its original splendor, “will only increase the town’s population by two, whereas years ago the property had a family,” the document sees fit to point out.
Quite the change from the 1930s, when Franklin Clyde Baggerly’s “The History of the Town of Washington, Virginia,” put the town’s population at nearly 500, and if not quite that many within the town’s boundaries enough people to support three general mercantile stores, three garages “with Ladies’ Rest Rooms,” a hotel, 10 tourist homes, a bank, two auditoriums, five churches, a high school with over 200 pupils, two wayside restaurants, a barber shop, numerous other businesses, professional offices, an active Masonic Hall, and of course a row of county court buildings.
Which actually isn’t too different than today, minus the mercantiles, garages, school, hotel and bank. Given Washington remains the government seat of Rappahannock, and is also home to the county’s largest private employer — the renowned Inn at Little Washington — it comes as no surprise that the town hosts a daily commuting workforce of about 250, about twice its population.
The Inn “brings a great number of visitors to the village . . . [and] also very positive and valuable publicity to the town through its international reputation and marketing and promotion,” the plan observes.
“The town also serves as a cultural and entertainment center of the county,” it continues, citing two live performance theaters, studio art galleries, antique shops, and a new but quickly popular Sunday farmer’s market.
And, the document further points out, while change has “seemed to occur gradually in the town of Washington, change has in fact occurred continuously. The Inn has refurbished a number of buildings as well as partnered with the town to beautify the town center and stub street. Since 2010, $12 to $14 million has been spent on the renovation of upwards of 35 buildings in the town. On Main Street alone, there have been renovations to 13 buildings by both businesses and private owners.”
In addition, the Inn has also recently “established a three-eighths of a mile circular trail for town residents and visitor use, a model for future trails throughout the community.”
So while the coming few years could, in fact, see a further population decline, don’t look for a lull in infrastructure growth to continue very long — not with the burgeoning nation’s capital expanding outward by the day.
“There will continue to be pressure for some growth, in order to meet the number of residents necessary to sustain services the population seeks and because the county’s planning funnels growth to the town of Washington and five other villages in the county,” the document reminds. “The county in its comprehensive plan has encouraged development in or near the county’s town [of Washington] and villages, and that puts pressure on the town to accept this population increase and to plan for it accordingly.”
The Code of Virginia requires that every locality prepare, adopt and periodically revise a comprehensive plan, in part for “the purpose of guiding and accomplishing a coordinated, adjusted and harmonious development.”
The plan this go-round was overseen by Frederic F. Catlin, executive director of the Montessori Children’s Communities of Virginia.
“The town [of Washington] has the opportunity through this comprehensive plan and other efforts to establish more strongly its brand — what kind of town it chooses to be for the next 5 to 10 years,” the document concludes, encouraging that the brand be developed by its citizenry and not outsiders.
“The town must be proactive and collaborative in this incremental process rather than letting others characterize, define, and label the town,” it states.
By the way, new towns incorporated in Virginia today must have a minimum population of 1,000 residents.
Editor’s note: This is the second of an occasional series on the newly approved 2017 Town of Washington Comprehensive Plan.