Census numbers spotlight increased diversity, concerns about sprawl

Friday, March 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ When Sally Thomas sees her Virginia county touted in national magazines, she almost wants to cringe.

Sure she is proud when Albemarle County is named one of the best places to play golf. But the recognition also means more urban sprawl _ a contentious issue in Virginia as 80 percent of the state's 7.1 million residents make their homes in metropolitan areas, more than half of those in suburbia.

``We view (the publicity) as a mixed blessing,'' said Thomas, chairwoman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. ``We don't do anything to entice growth.''

Virginia isn't the only state becoming more suburbanized. Census data released Thursday as part of the bureau's once-in-a-decade headcount highlighted a similar trend in New Jersey, Wisconsin and Mississippi, providing cities with new challenges as they also face rising minority populations.

Albemarle County, an area of suburbs surrounding Charlottesville and home to Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, gained more than 11,000 residents in 2000, a 16 percent increase from a decade ago.

The figures show what Virginians have known for a while: People prefer life in the land of minivans and soccer fields.

``People are leaving the cities for the suburbs,'' said Julia H. Martin, a University of Virginia demographic researcher. ``I wish it didn't happen that way. I find it sad to see my drive through the woods becoming a drive through housing and potential subdivisions.''

In Wisconsin, the number of Hispanics doubled from 1990 to 2000, and the state's Asian population increased by more than 50 percent. The overall population of Dane County, which encompasses Madison and its suburbs, grew by 59,441 people, the largest jump of any county.

``In the beginning, it used to be you felt pretty much like the Lone Ranger out on the interstate in the morning,'' said Marilyn Davis, a state employee who has commuted from her home 30 miles west of Milwaukee to Madison for 17 years. ``It's a totally different picture now.''

In DeSoto County in extreme northern Mississippi, the population swelled by 57 percent during the last 10 years, growing into a suburb of Memphis, Tenn.

``People were fleeing the high taxes of Memphis into DeSoto County and other areas of north Mississippi,'' said state Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from Jackson. ``Areas where there was growth built churches and schools that attracted more people.''

New Jersey, already a heavily suburban state, became even more suburbanized, and the state's Asian population soared from 270,839 in 1990 to at least 480,276.

As the Virginia suburbs continue to grow, battle lines have been drawn between developers and preservationists.

The Virginia Coalition of High Growth Communities, set up to fight suburban sprawl, wants to control the growth it says causes traffic tie-ups, fuels massive road-building projects, clogs schools and drives up home prices.

Then there's Voters to Stop Sprawl _ a group dedicated to fighting politicians who approve rapid growth and supports those, like Thomas, who want to control it.

Brigitte Morton, who has lived in Prince William County outside the nation's capital for 16 years, welcomes her county's 30 percent increase in growth since 1990.

``Sure, traffic has increased exponentially _ and not just during rush hour,'' said Morton, 55. ``But there's a lot of things to do, and it's a nice mix with the countryside.''