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
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
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
"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
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
Developers still can find plenty of land with sewer service available,
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,"
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
being shuffled from parts of Advantage Valley into Putnam County, she
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
"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
attracting and keeping businesses, like the Eastern Panhandle and Putnam
"I believe you have to provide opportunities to other areas of the
"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
rate 147 pictures of different types of landscapes - suburban
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
Developer John Leslie attended that meeting, but didn't stay for the
of the area, a concept he vigorously opposes.
"There are two schools of thought, and they're not new," Leslie
"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
"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
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
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,"
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
One house cost $85,000 more than the other
because that county had imposed "impact fees" on new development, he
That sort of approach will kill growth, he
"Putnam County has enjoyed such nice growth, county officials
are of a mindset that it will go on forever. It won't," Leslie
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
"A lot of times we hear, 'But wait a minute, I moved out here to be
"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
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
"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
"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.