- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

When someone asks Ben Chouiniere where he lives, he says Northern Virginia. The 25-year-old moved here a few years ago so his wife, Kat, could attend graduate school at George Washington University. Study in the District? Sure. Live there? Uh, no.

“I never even considered living in D.C.,” says Mr. Chouiniere, who sells cars at a Chantilly auto dealership and lives in Centreville. “Mainly because it is too expensive. We came from the suburbs, and we moved to the suburbs. I’ve lived in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia and here. I’ve always lived in areas just like this — near a city, but not in it.”

A generation ago, it was necessary to have a city to have suburbs. One might live in, say, Silver Spring or Arlington, but chances are one worked — as well as shopped and ate — in the District.

These days, however, with far-flung Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties among the fastest-growing in the area, there are hundreds of thousands of area residents who never give the nation’s capital a moment’s thought — except to make an annual museum visit or to marvel at the lack of parking.

Social scientists call the self-contained, formerly rural areas exurbs. Critics label those communities sprawl. For others, they are just home.

Those fast-growing exurbs are full of transplants from somewhere else. Rooting for the home team? Chances are it’s not the Redskins. Catching up on local news? The Internet will fill you in on goings-on in the last place you lived.

“I get most of my news from BBC online,” Mr. Chouiniere says as he sips an iced coffee at a Loudoun County strip mall shop. “I’m more interested in world news than local.”

The Washington area has grown by more than 400,000 residents in the past five years, making it the fastest-growing metropolitan area outside the Sunbelt, according to U.S. census figures. The biggest growth is in the outer-ring counties such as Loudoun and Stafford. Those areas, meanwhile, already saw gigantic gains from 1990 to 2000, when Loudoun’s population grew by 96 percent and Stafford’s by 51 percent.

That means there are people who live in the Washington area but know as much about Washington as someone in Des Moines.

“I know a number of people who live in the exurbs who have never ridden the Metro before,” says Washingtonian Douglas E. Morris, author of the book “It’s a Sprawl World After All: The Human Costs of Unplanned Growth — And Visions for a Better Future.

“Whenever there is extreme sprawl, such as in Atlanta, Los Angeles and D.C., … there is a loss of community life. It’s not just that people don’t support the local sports teams or cities. They live without a Main Street,” he says. “I challenge anyone to find a sense of community in a strip mall. It may be a place on a map, but it is not a place in anyone’s hearts.”

For many suburban dwellers, though, community is where you make it.

Lynn Vicchio and her husband, Dennis, moved to the Washington area from New Jersey in 2002 when Mr. Vicchio was hired as a manager at Fannie Mae headquarters in Reston. They lived in Alexandria, then Annandale. Now they have three children younger than 7 and call the fast-growing planned community of South Riding, Va., home.

“I love it here,” Mrs. Vicchio, 34, says. “It is very family-friendly. Pretty much everything I need is here.”

The Vicchios make the 45-minute drive to the city a couple of times a year to go to a museum or a concert, Mrs. Vicchio says.

Other than that, life revolves around the athletic fields and schools and, yes, the strip malls, of the suburbs.

Actually, identifying with the suburbs is a credit to the outer areas becoming more sophisticated as well as self-contained, says Joel Kotkin, author of “The City: A Global History” and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Thirty years ago, suburbanites connected more to Washington, he says. These days, a wealth of well-paying suburban jobs and a plethora of dining options make living outside the Beltway a whole lot more interesting, he says.

“Suburbia used to have terrible restaurants,” Mr. Kotkin says. “Now you have educated and sophisticated people living in places like Loudoun County. Their taste buds didn’t shrivel up when they moved.”

The demands of a more upscale crowd have resulted in the planning of new urban centers where exurbanites can congregate. Fairfax Corner, Reston Town Center and the Kentlands in Gaithersburg try to re-create the Main Street feel that Mr. Morris laments is lost.

Those places might not have the dynamism, diversity or history of the District, but they can be acceptable places to get a plate of pad Thai or an almond latte, items that were hard to find there a decade ago.

Judi Dougherty, 45, grew up in Rockville calling herself a Washingtonian. Season tickets to the Redskins and a connection with the city were part of her family. Now she lives in Gaithersburg and works at a beauty salon at the Kentlands. The change is palpable, she says.

“People in the suburbs just seemed all blobbed together,” she says. “They don’t call themselves Washingtonians. But the people who like cities like the feel of the Kentlands. It is still a baby concept, but it is quite interesting. So maybe you get the best of both worlds — city and suburbs — in a place like that. We can’t make everything perfect.”

With technology changing the way people work, live and communicate, Middleburg, Va., eventually might seem like the middle of it all, Mr. Kotkin says. The line between home and office is blurred by high-speed Internet connections and personal digital assistants. The difference between suburb and city is sometimes hard to spot on streets lined with Pottery Barns and Starbucks.

One can have a lot of different identities, Mr. Kotkin says. People can identify with their subdivision, their workplace, their hometown as well as Washington.

Or sometimes, their identity can be found in how fast they can get to the next place.

“Identifying yourself by how close you live to which airport,” Mr. Kotkin says. “Your access to Dulles — that can be more important than anything.”

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