Fredericksburg appears to be at the hub of some of the most far-reaching development under way in Northern Virginia.
Located midway between Richmond and the nation’s capital along Interstate 95, the city of some 20,000 residents long ago ceased to be a village among rolling forests and farmlands.
There was a time, says lifelong resident Sandi Stein, that “you knew you were in the country when you passed [Virginia] Route 3 and [U.S.] Route 1,” highways that border the town.
Caroline Hayden says that when her family — who operated a dairy farm and raised horses — moved to the region in 1960 to escape the urbanization of Howard County, she had a sense that the area was “still recovering from the Civil War.”
“There was so little traffic,” she fondly recalls, “we could easily ride our horses. I-95 was the real clicker. Depending on your viewpoint, it is the greatest thing that has happened in the area since the Civil War, or you don’t like it.”
Long before the Civil War, though, an adventurous developer leveraged transportation assets to maximize development in the region.
Colonial Gov. Alexander Spotswood undertook the development of the Rappahannock River Valley in the early 1700s. His goal was to encourage settlement and to promote enterprise.
Spotswood touted the river, which runs some 184 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, as a westward alternative to the existing communities and commerce along the James River.
Fredericksburg was created at the fall line of the Rappahannock River, the point at which oceangoing vessels could not travel farther inland.
It was established in 1728 and thrived as the port for Spotsylvania County. The town was also a way station for westward exploration and development at the encouragement of Spotswood.
George Washington’s family moved to Ferry Farm, just across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, in 1738, and other early residents of historic note include naval hero John Paul Jones and James Monroe.
By 1837, a railroad linked Fredericksburg to Richmond, but plans for expanded rail service to outlying areas were interrupted by the Civil War.
The location of the town, between warring capitals, served to make it and the surrounding area a strategic prize during the Civil War. The North sought to regain some momentum in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, after failing to decisively deal with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at Sharpsburg, Md., in the Battle of Antietam in September.
The town was “bombarded, bloodied and looted” but survived, according to the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Web site. The military park commemorates the battle, along with other several other significant Civil War skirmishes that occurred in the immediate area.
The history of Fredericksburg is commemorated, as well, in a 40-block national historic district with some 350 buildings dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, including the homes of George Washington’s sister Betty (Kenmore) and the Mary Washington House, where his mother spent her final years.
Colonial tavern life can be relived at the Rising Sun Tavern, which was built in 1760 by Charles Washington as his home.
The city’s courthouse, built in 1852, was designed by James Renwick, known for his work on the Smithsonian Institution’s “castle” and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The historic district also includes a local-history museum and cultural center.
The town features many indoor and outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, boating and special tours. A comprehensive overview of activities is provided at www.fredericksburgvirginia.net.
Despite all the changes in the area over the years, Fredericksburg Planning Director Ray Ocel says the city “still has that small-town atmosphere.”
Consisting of some 10 square miles and largely developed, the city is now seeing limited development, Mr. Ocel says, with Idlewild, an 800-unit town-house/single-family home development at the intersection of I-95 and Route 3, under construction.
Developer Ryland Homes (www.ryland.com) is offering a variety of town houses and single-family homes.
The Mayfield model in Ryland’s Cornell Collection starts at $452,990. The 2,263-square-foot single-family home features two levels, 21/2 baths and three bedrooms. In the Kershaw Collection, the Brighton model town home starts at $400,990 and has 2,185 square feet, with three bedrooms and 21/2 baths.
“Years ago, home prices encouraged people to move out from ‘proper’ Northern Virginia to Fredericksburg, but I don’t think that is the case anymore,” Mr. Ocel says.
These days, he says, it has more to do with quality of life.
Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. reported that the average house price in Fredericksburg in June was $440,940 — a 94.4 percent increase over the $226,844 price last June. The average sale took 37 days. MRIS reported that an additional 64 properties were newly listed in Fredericksburg in June.
By comparison, Spotsylvania County posted a June MRIS-measured average price of $345,271, up from $273,635 in 2004. Stafford County’s average price was $410,157, up from $306,060 last year.
Average time on the market for Spotsylvania County was 29 days, 24 days for Stafford County.
Ms. Stein, managing broker for Fredericksburg-based Coldwell Banker Carriage House Realty and president of the Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors, says increasing prices have not dampened buyer interest in Fredericksburg and the surrounding area.
“It just keeps moving,” she says, but she adds that she is concerned that transportation issues may vex long-term growth.
She points, for example, to the July 7 accident and toxic spill that claimed a trucker’s life and shut down I-95 in both directions in the wee hours. The closure disrupted southbound traffic throughout the day, causing backups into Prince William County.
Fredericksburg is served by Virginia Railway Express with service to Union Station, but there are concerns, Ms. Stein says, about the capacity of train service to match growth.
Catherine Farley, leader of the Spotsylvania chapter of Voters to Stop Sprawl, says that even on a good day, commuters traveling on I-95 endure some “two hours of pain” to get to jobs in Northern Virginia and the District.
The Spotsylvania County Department of Economic Development is inviting commuters to “Give I-95 2 Weeks Notice” with a Web site (www.workcloser2home.com) designed to connect workers with local businesses. The panel reports that 64 percent of Spotsylvania workers commute to jobs outside the county.
The major employers in the area are outside the Fredericksburg city limits.
Spotsylvania County’s biggest employers include a CVS Pharmacy distribution warehouse, 450 employees; manufacturer General Products Co., 375; Diversified Mailing Services Inc., 300; General Motors Corp., 300; Sheridan Books Inc., 250; and UPS, 110.
Stafford County includes the FBI Academy and forensics lab, employing some 2,700. Moreover, the county is home to the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico, with its 12,000 military personnel, and 22 Department of Defense contractors.
Like all of the Washington region, Fredericksburg and its surrounding area are grappling with growth.
The Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce is planning a “reality check” exercise to bring together residents interested in growth issues.
The program, developed by the Urban Land Institute, has participants focus on transportation, economic development and community services. ULI says participants include “stakeholders from the public sector, the business community, the development community, builders, Realtors, environmental groups and civic associations.”
Ms. Farley of the anti-sprawl group says the area is experiencing “a huge influx of people trying to evade high property taxes, while demanding necessary urban infrastructure, such as roads, transportation and schools.”
She says her group supports “smart growth” that will serve to “concentrate” growth into “an urban service area.”
Recently, she says, the group gave its support to a proposed 1,500-unit “town center” community to be built on a former sand and gravel mine.
Tricord Inc., developer of the proposed New Post development south of Fredericksburg on U.S. Route 17, recently pledged $6 million for either a VRE station in the county or a Spotsylvania County purchase-of-development-rights (PDR) program.
Ms. Farley says a PDR program would provide for the county to buy development rights from landowners to preserve open space and conservation of farmland. Loudoun County enacted a controversial PDR plan in 2000.