Montgomery County vs. Fairfax County

Montgomery County vs. Fairfax County

We're next-door neighbors and strikingly similar demographically, so why can't local residents imagine living across the river?

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By all rights, Mindy Montgomery should still be living in, well, Montgomery County. She grew up in Bethesda and graduated from Walt Whitman High School in 1972. And her brother still lives here. She’s even a descendant of the Richard Montgomery, the Revolutionary War general after whom the county and the high school in Rockville are named.

For the longest time, Virginia wasn’t in Mindy’s sights. “It might as well have been Mars when we were growing up,” she recalls.

So what is she doing stuck in afternoon traffic on Route 193 in Fairfax County commuting from her nursing job at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., to her home over there? The question hangs in the ether as she tries to explain over her cell phone why she moved from Bethesda’s Bannockburn neighborhood, a mere seven-minute drive up MacArthur Boulevard from her workplace, across the Potomac River to what seems like another planet to many Marylanders. It all boils down to one word: love.

“I got married to a person who lives in Virginia,” she says. “I’m still getting used to it.”

Every year, thousands defect from one side of the Potomac to the other, crossing political, cultural and natural boundaries between Montgomery and Fairfax counties. According to the most recent IRS migration statistics, 2,155 people moved to Fairfax from Montgomery in 2007, while 1,776 came here from there. The number 1,776 has sort of a patriotic ring to it, as in, “In 2007, 1,776 residents declared their independence from the Commonwealth of Virginia by moving to Montgomery County.” In 2006, the numbers were slightly in our favor, 2,162-2,126.

“All of my Bethesda friends say they’d never move to Virginia,” says Mindy, 54. “But they don’t know that. You can never say never, right?”

So alike, but so different

Montgomery and Fairfax counties look a lot alike. They are similar in household income, family size, median age, educational level and the percentage of professionals. Both are among the nation’s most affluent counties (in median household income, Fairfax was second and Montgomery was seventh among counties with 250,000 or more residents in 2007). They are the region’s most populous jurisdictions, though Fairfax has more people (1.08 million compared with Montgomery’s 930,000, according to 2007 census estimates). But don’t be fooled by the similarities. In many respects, they are worlds apart.

For one thing, the government in Montgomery County is more involved in citizens’ lives than the government across the river. It has more speed cameras, more stringent permitting requirements for fences, and tougher recycling rules and leash laws. Montgomery County is also more liberal politically. In the last election, for example, 71.5 percent of Montgomery’s voters went for Barack Obama, compared with 60.1 percent in Fairfax. Although Fairfax has gone from red to purple to bluish in recent years, three of the 10 members on its governing board of supervisors are Republicans. There are no Republicans on Montgomery County’s nine-member council. The most populated parts of Montgomery County have more of an urban feel than most of Fairfax County. Montgomery has vibrant downtowns (Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring and Friendship Heights), while Fairfax has mostly sprawl. (McLean, Va., the Fairfax County town that’s most often compared with Bethesda, has no downtown to speak of.) Despite its more urban nature, Montgomery County is much less crowded. According to census figures, there are 1,876 residents per square mile in Montgomery County, compared with 2,636 in Fairfax County.

Some of the differences are impressionistic. Bethesdan Jeff Bulman, owner of two Original Pancake House franchises in Montgomery and one in Fairfax, says: “You can go into the same chain store in Montgomery County and in Tysons and you’ll see merchandise slightly different, more conservative in Virginia.

“There is a dividing line: Virginia is in the South; Montgomery is in the North,” adds Bulman, who grew up in the District.

‘You have to drive so much’

Mindy Montgomery would have been happy to stay put. Who could blame her? She grew up in the Sumner neighborhood of Bethesda, off Massachusetts Avenue. Her father, a physician, was affiliated with Suburban Hospital. “We’re deeply embedded in Bethesda,” she says. “I still think of it as home.”

After remarrying in 2007, she moved from her 1950s rambler in Bannockburn to her new husband’s two-story colonial in the Foxvale Farms subdivision near Reston, Va. “He bought the house in 1980 and didn’t want to give it up,” she says. “We waited 10 years to get married because I wanted [my son] to stay in Bethesda close to his dad, who lived two blocks away, and we wanted him to finish in Montgomery. I really think Montgomery schools are the best, and I wanted him to go to Whitman.”

But her son wasn’t interested in attending the University of Maryland, and now she is grateful to be paying in-state tuition at Virginia Tech in the commonwealth’s highly regarded higher education system. Her husband was raised in Wheaton, but, she says, is now “pretty entrenched” in Virginia.

Last year, Montgomery’s brother, a 1973 Whitman graduate, married a woman from Oakton, Va. “She moved her kids and everything over to Bethesda,” Montgomery says with a hint of envy. “I did try to persuade my husband, but he was unmovable. I seriously doubt I’ll ever be able to persuade him to move back, even though I’d love to.”

If it’s love that brought her to Virginia, it’s the traffic that drives her nuts. “In Bethesda, I could wake up on a Saturday and do six errands by noon because everything is so close to everything else. Over here, I’m lucky to do two, because you have to drive so much.”

On workdays, she leaves home at 5 a.m. to beat the traffic and get to what she calls “the right side of the river before it gets too bad.” There, she joins four or five women she has been jogging with for 18 years, mostly along a bike path that follows MacArthur Boulevard. “If you leave at 6, you’re up the creek,” she says.

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