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Construction numbers big in Eastern Panhandle

December 30, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.Va. - Comparably affordable housing prices, commuter trains to the city and fewer regulations likely are bringing new residents to Berkeley and Jefferson counties - which accounted for half of the $350 million spent statewide last year in residential construction, according to F.W. Dodge, which tracks construction in the United States and Canada.

A couple in their 30s making a combined $80,000 to $100,000 a year would not be able to afford much in terms of housing in places like Montgomery County, Md., or Loudoun County, Va., said Katy Fidler, incoming president of the Eastern Panhandle Home Builders Association.

In this area, such a couple could afford "a really nice house," said Fidler, who works as a project manager for a real estate developer.

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Fidler said she believes many of the new residents in Jefferson County use it as a "bedroom community," meaning they live there but work in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

In Berkeley County, more of its residents are people who grew up here and want to stay, or renters who are able to buy a house because of low interest rates, Fidler said.

With more residents comes an increased need for services.

From 1990 to 2003, Berkeley County schools had 3,777 new students walk through the doors - the most in the state. The next closest in terms of growth was Jefferson County, with 1,078 new students.

Other counties throughout the state lost population.

Overall, between July 1, 2003, and this past July 1, West Virginia gained 3,914 new residents for an overall population of 1,815,354, according to annual population estimates released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. Since the 2000 Census, the state's population has grown by about 7,000 residents.

As for growth in the Eastern Panhandle, some see no end in sight.

"I think we're just getting a taste of it right now," Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon has said. "I think the biggest growth is yet ahead of us."

Bob Crawford, executive director of the Berkeley County Development Authority, agreed.

"I don't see it ending," he said.

Smaller business and commercial growth has accompanied residential construction, although the recession has "slowed things down a bit," Crawford said.

A few companies have announced plans to expand, but there have been no recent major announcements concerning an industry planning to open or relocate here, he said.

"The other side of the coin" of residential growth deals with services. Seventy or more studies show that for each dollar a resident pays in taxes, far more than a dollar is demanded in services such as education and emergency services, Crawford said.

A commercial business, however, will require far less than a dollar in services for each dollar paid in taxes, Crawford said.

Keeping pace with residential growth by bringing in new industry or retaining existing businesses is important, Crawford said.

Fidler said new residents bring with them a "Catch-22." They move here because housing prices are low, in part because of fewer regulations. Yet once here, some of those same people start demanding regulations, she said.

Chad Enders, president of the Martinsburg division of Dan Ryan Builders, said he believes many of the area's new residents are escaping from the city.

Small lots and homes almost on top of one another in the Washington area are offset here by large lots, fresh air and a view of the mountains, Enders said.

"It's just such a great place to be," said Enders, who said he plans to move here. "It isn't overbuilt. You're not on top of each other."

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