The title quote came from Supervisor Laura Sellers during the March 24th Board of Supervisors meeting. Ms. Sellers isn't on board with the concept that Stafford is growing too much or too quickly. In a recent FB post, Ms. Sellers reiterated this when she commented that we are growing at 1.2% but that some of the growth is just in the wrong areas. Look for a future post from BTW regarding how Stafford County is trying to shape its growth and its land preservation efforts. Her opinion on growth, however, is in direct contrast to what many in the community have expressed to BTW. In fact, fellow Garrisonville resident and School Board Rep. Chris Connelly also expressed similar concerns at the Forge redistricting public hearing in February. He said that "Stafford has a growth problem," and that" (He) didn't move to Stafford to see it turn into Dale City." Who is right, is there a growth problem that needs addressing or are we just blowing things out of proportion?
Let's start by defining what that 1.2% number represents. Ms. Sellers is referencing demographic estimates produced by the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. This group produces population estimates and projections for the entire state of Virginia. According to them, Stafford's population grew by 1739 residents from February 2015-February 2016, bringing our total number of residents to 141,915, hence the 1.2% growth. Certainly seems manageable in a county that is 277 square miles. But let's pick up the shovel and dig a little deeper...
The graphic above shows the Cooper Center's population projections through 2040 and they estimate 150,881 people will live in Stafford 3 years from now. That is a growth percentage of 6.3% from 2016-2020. Keep in mind, in hard numbers, that is almost an additional 9000 more people living here, enrolling their children in schools and driving on our roads over just the next 3 years. Slightly unsettling. BUT, if you divide that percentage up by 4 for each of the 4 years from 2016 to 2020, you get 1.57% annual growth which is not much more than the 1.2% annual growth Ms. Sellers referenced. 9000 more people by 2020 sounds distressing but 1.57% annual growth sounds perfectly fine. Statistics can be a fickle mistress.
It's hard to take any estimates further than a few years down the road too seriously, it's a bit like having your fortune read by a psychic with a crystal ball. This same organization's predictions from 2015 estimated Stafford's 2040 numbers would be 333,654, (as seen in the graphic below) not the much more manageable 208,845 they now predict. Who knows what events could develop that would have an impact on our population numbers when 2040 is 23 years away? Alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, A.I. robotic uprising...it's anybody's guess.
So, let's dispense with fortune telling and look backwards at how Stafford has grown prior to this year. Below we see a graphic that shows the percentage of growth our county has seen in comparison to some of our neighbors from 2010-2016.
Here we can see that Stafford County has grown 10% in the last 6 years with a hard number population increase of almost 13,000 people. That seems like a lot and might explain why Stafford residents are starting to feel squeezed. Couple this number with the 9000 projected increase through 2020 and you get an almost 17% increase over a ten year period, 22,000 people. That seems like a whole lot, especially when you consider that infrastructure like roads and schools have not received the sufficient investments required to support all these people. Even if you want to plant your flag on the shaky ground that the annual growth percentage is low and nothing to worry about, we haven't kept up with infrastructure needs for past growth so ANY new growth just doubles down on any problems.
But population numbers alone don't really give the whole picture. Let's look at a graph produced by Stafford County, a graph we have looked at before.
This is a very interesting graph produced at a BoS meeting. All of the years in red show how many occupancy permits were issued in 2016 and prior to it, the years in blue project how many might be distributed in the future. The years 2000-2006 show no-doubt-about-it booming growth, all those occupancy permits translate into lots of people moving to Stafford during that time. But in 2007, the bottom starts to fall out and doesn't really bounce back until just last year. We all remember the housing bubble bursting around 2007 and this graph dramatically shows it's impact. It has taken a long time for developers to get back on their feet and start building again in earnest.
So, what is my point? Well, maybe we can't look back on the last few years of growth and assume that the next few years will give us more of the same. One bit of evidence from the graph above comes from 2016, the only year that shows both projected and actual permit numbers: Projected permits distributed was only 790 but actual permits distributed was 1091, a 27% increase. That's quite a difference, what might further 27% deviations from projected permit issuance in years 2017-20 do to population projection numbers? The movie Field of Dreams taught us that "If you build it, they will come" and folks, we are building it.
Growth in and of itself is not necessarily bad, larger population numbers mean more great businesses and amazing opportunities that come to our county. It's all a matter of perspective. Personally, I moved away from Woodbridge 14 years ago to escape the hordes of people but that was my family's preference. I am sure there are many who live in areas like Woodbridge, Fairfax and Loudoun who are perfectly happy.
Regardless of how you feel about the growth itself, setting our fickle statistics and crystal balls aside, we need to be prepared for what is coming. Projections by highly knowledgable people say 9000 more people are likely coming in the next few years, assuming the zombie apocalypse doesn't happen until the 2030's. The real question is: will our elected officials make sure we are ready for them?