Putnam County's red-hot growth may be cooling off. According to a Gazette computer analysis of IRS data, the county gained about half asmany 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 andLincoln 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.