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GROWTH APPEARS TO BE SLOWING

Putnam County's red-hot growth may be cooling off. According to

 

a Gazette computer analysis of IRS data, the county gained about half as

 

many people in 1999 as it did five years earlier.

 

 

Other signs point to a slowdown as well. For the first time in a

 

decade, fewer students enrolled in Putnam County's schools this year. New

 

building permits last year fell to 1993 levels, according to the Putnam

 

County Planning Office. The county lost people to Mason, Jackson and

 

Lincoln counties in the past six years, according to IRS data.

 

 

County leaders disagree on what has caused the slowdown, and whether

 

it's a blessing or a curse.

 

 

"We have a great deal of difficulty providing services to the people

 

who are already here," said Marjorie Ryan, head of Putnam County's

 

planning office. "We need to get a handle on that before we complain about

 

Putnam County being on a downward spiral."

 

 

Out of room?

 

 

In the 1990s, Putnam County gained 9,000 people, the same as if the

 

population of Dunbar had moved there. According to U.S. Census

 

estimates, Putnam County had the second-largest population increase

 

in West Virginia this decade. The population of Putnam County may

 

  • urpass the city of Charleston in the 2000 Census.
  •  

     

    But growth in Putnam County seems to be tapering off, and the

     

    area's leaders are wondering why. Some say the area is running out of flat

     

    land, a big draw for families with children.

     

     

    "People want more space," said Ava Crum, a former Winfield teacher and

     

    a top-selling Putnam County real estate agent. People call her every day

     

    looking for a 15- or 20-acre lot. They don't know that the land for their

     

    hobby farm will cost them $100,000 or more, she

  • aid.
  •  

     

    For years, Putnam County offered cheaper new homes than Kanawha County.

     

    Builders had an easier time preparing a home site on flat land, and the

     

    cost of the land itself was lower. But as land prices go up in Putnam

     

    County, developers are building more expensive homes to try to recoup

     

    their investment.

     

     

    "We're already to the point where Teays Valley is not the place to go

     

    for people who are looking for homes under $100,000," Crum

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Some county leaders say Teays Valley is running out of land with easy

     

    access to public sewer and water systems.

     

     

    In the early 1970s, growth in Teays Valley came to a virtual

     

    halt when state health department officials issued a moratorium on new

     

    construction. They said septic systems were contaminating the area's water

     

  • upply. Building resumed when South Putnam Public Service District brought
  •  

  • ewers to Teays Valley, according to the agency's director, Fred
  •  

    Stotlemeyer.

     

     

    Developers still can find plenty of land with sewer service available,

     

    he

  • aid.
  • Stotlemeyer blames job losses in Charleston and Huntington for

     

    the slowdown in growth. About 57 percent of Putnam County workers

     

    commute outside the county to their jobs, more than any other county in

     

    the state, according to the state Bureau of Employment.

     

     

    "I think the cool off has been caused by a weaker economy, and the

     

    transportation bottleneck between Teays Valley and Charleston,"

     

    Stotlemeyer

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Gail Vest agrees that Putnam County cannot continue to grow unless the

     

    economies of Charleston, Huntington and the whole region improve. Vest

     

    used to work for the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce and now runs a

     

    regional economic development organization called Advantage Valley.

     

     

    Vest said the region between Ashland, Ky., and Montgomery, W.Va., had

     

  • tagnant population growth for the past 40 years. People are
  •  

    being shuffled from parts of Advantage Valley into Putnam County, she

     

  • aid.
  •  

     

    The IRS data confirm Vest's instincts. More than 80 percent of Putnam

     

    County's growth between 1994 and 1999 came from Kanawha County.

     

     

    "I think it's important for Putnam people to realize they can't grow at

     

    another county's expense," Vest

  • aid.
  • "A shift of population within

     

    the region is really insignificant as far as economic prosperity goes."

     

     

    Sen. Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, would like to see more state development

     

    money spent on his county and the rest of Advantage Valley. The state

     

  • hould invest its limited resources in places that are more successful in
  •  

    attracting and keeping businesses, like the Eastern Panhandle and Putnam

     

    County, he

  • aid.
  •  

     

    "I believe you have to provide opportunities to other areas of the

     

    state," Craigo

  • aid.
  • "But you've got to water your flowers."

     

     

    Grow or die

     

     

    The building boom in Teays Valley may be nearing its end. County

     

    leaders hope the new four-lane replacement for U.S. 35 will open up land

     

    for development. They will have one more chance to develop a large amount

     

    of land, and to avoid the development mistakes of Teays Valley while

     

    repeating its successes.

     

     

    In November, a group of Putnam County citizens watched a special slide

     

  • how at the Hurricane Valley Community Center. A consultant asked them to
  •  

    rate 147 pictures of different types of landscapes - suburban

     

  • ubdivisions, fields with tobacco barns, commercial zones off interstate
  •  

    exits.

     

     

    A picture of rolling pastures ringed by maple and oak trees received

     

    the group's highest score. They saved some of their lowest scores for

     

    pictures of the Winfield/Teays Valley exit, with its jumble of gas

     

  • tations and fast-food restaurants.
  •  

     

    Developer John Leslie attended that meeting, but didn't stay for the

     

  • lide show. He called the "visual preference survey" a precursor to zoning
  •  

    of the area, a concept he vigorously opposes.

     

     

    "There are two schools of thought, and they're not new," Leslie

  • aid.
  •  

    "One group believes in our freedom to buy, sell and do whatever we need to

     

    do to make a living. The other believes in building only if they approve,

     

    and if it benefits our collective well-being as they see it."

     

     

    Leslie's family moved to the area from Webster County in 1944. He

     

    remembers when a driver on Teays Valley Road would only see four houses

     

    between Hurricane and the Kanawha River. His high school graduating class

     

    had 28 students. He mourns the loss of the Putnam County of his childhood.

     

     

     

     

    "I tell my kids, I'm sorry they couldn't grow up in the '50s like I

     

    did," Leslie

  • aid.
  • "It was a complete age of innocence. They have no idea

     

    how it was. How wonderful it was."

     

     

    His nostalgia for the old Putnam County does not diminish his

     

    enthusiasm for development. The county must grow or die, he

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Leslie blames too many regulations for driving Putnam residents to

     

    places like Mason and Jackson counties.

     

     

    "I've spent time looking at Jackson County myself," he

  • aid.
  • "Wait

     

    until U.S. 35 opens up. That's when there will be an exodus."

     

     

    Zoning regulations that limit the size and number of signs are "silly,"

     

    he

  • aid.
  • Leslie blamed zoning in general for chasing away several

     

    businesses in Teays Valley. He also criticized plans to force builders to

     

    get their homes inspected and approved by the county before putting them

     

    up for sale.

     

     

    In Maryland, a developer built two identical houses within a half-mile

     

    of each other, Leslie

  • aid.
  • One house cost $85,000 more than the other

     

    because that county had imposed "impact fees" on new development, he

  • aid.
  •  

    That sort of approach will kill growth, he

  • aid.
  •  

     

    "Putnam County has enjoyed such nice growth, county officials

     

    are of a mindset that it will go on forever. It won't," Leslie

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Loving it to death

     

     

    County planner Ryan blames congestion and unregulated development, not

     

    zoning, for the county's slowdown in growth. The county did not

     

    implement zoning in Teays Valley until 1995, after traffic on area roads

     

    became snarled and a lot of the land already had been developed.

     

     

    She says the lack of effective zoning can destroy the beautiful

     

    landscapes and slower lifestyle that drew people to Putnam County in the

     

    first place.

     

     

    "A lot of times we hear, 'But wait a minute, I moved out here to be

     

  • ext to that wooded area. I didn't know it would be developed,'" Ryan
  •  

  • aid.
  • "They lost the very reason they moved here, because everybody else

     

    had the same idea."

     

     

    If county leaders want to save some rural landscapes, Ryan said, they

     

    have two choices: Own it or zone it. They can buy it and preserve it as

     

    parkland, or they can limit land use in order to prevent a repeat of the

     

    Winfield/Teays Valley exit.

     

     

    "We have to achieve that delicate balance between property rights and

     

    protection of property values," Ryan

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Putnam County Commissioner Jim Caruthers wants to use zoning to create

     

    business and industrial sites along the new highway. Without it, the area

     

    will turn into "trailer park city," he

  • aid.
  •  

     

    "When Teays Valley developed, a lot of flat fields that would have made

     

    fine industrial sites were turned into subdivisions. We lost a lot of our

     

    potential for attracting companies."

     

     

    When most people in Putnam County were farmers, Caruthers said, they

     

    would live on the hillsides and ridgetops and preserve the flat land for

     

    crops and livestock. Future generations should learn from those farmers

     

    and live on the hills, he said, and make room for their commercial and

     

    industrial livelihood in the valleys.

     

     

    "We need to be stingy with our available flat land," Caruthers

  • aid.
  •  

    "I've got a 20-year-old son I don't want moving to Charlotte. Right now,

     

    our youth can't stay here."

     

     

    Parts one, two and three of "Valley on the Move" are available on the

     

    Web at www. wvgazette.com.

     

     

    The county's plans for U.S. 35 and the visual preference survey can be

     

    found at www.putnam county.org/planning/tcsp/in dex.html.

     

     

    To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.

     

     


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