Estimates: Polk population growth slows dramatically

Published 10:01 am Monday, March 24, 2008

Far fewer people are moving into Polk County so far this decade than in the previous decade, according to estimates released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Census bureau figures also show that deaths are exceeding births by a wider margin in Polk County, resulting in a larger natural population decline.

The net effect is a much slower growth rate.

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The census bureau estimates Polk County had a population of 19,036 in July of 2007. That&squo;s up 3.9 percent from the 2000 census, when Polk&squo;s population was 18,324.

According to estimates, Polk&squo;s population has increased by an average of 0.56 percent a year in the first seven years of this decade.

By comparison, the population here rose 27.1 percent, or an average of 2.71 percent per year, between 1990 and 2000.

Polk County was one of the fastest growing counties in the state in the previous decade, adding nearly 4,000 residents.&bsp; That growth put Polk above the state growth rate of 21.4 percent and gave it the 17th highest&bsp; rate out of 100 counties.

So far this decade Polk&squo;s population is estimated to have grown by just 712. If this pace continues during the last three years of the current decade, Polk&squo;s population will have increased by only about 1,020 since 2000. Currently, Polk is estimated to have the 58th fastest growth rate in the state for this decade.

Below regional average

Polk&squo;s growth rate ‐ 3.9 percent since 2000 ‐ is now well below the national, state and regional averages. The Western North Carolina mountains region has grown by an estimated 7.1 percent since 2000, while North Carolina has grown by 12.6 percent, and the South by 10.2 percent.

Polk&squo;s population growth was well below Henderson County at 13 percent, Buncombe County at 9.9 percent, but above Rutherford County at 0.2 percent.

The slower growth rate in Polk County likely will be welcomed by many residents who have raised concerns that the county has been growing and changing too quickly.

The dramatic decline in population growth may also come as a surprise to some residents, considering that the county has seen a wave of new developments in recent years.

Although the developments have resulted in a record number of new lots created each year, relatively few buyers of the new lots have built houses here.

Furthermore, many of those who have built houses may not be new full-time residents. Some of the new developments have drawn people looking for second homes, or land investment opportunities.

The number of building permits issued by the county in 2007 was up about 20 percent compared to the number issued in 1999, but it&squo;s unclear how many of the additional permits were for second homes.

Deaths exceed births

The slower growth rate this decade may also be attributed to a widening gap between the number of births and deaths.

Between 1990 and 2000, deaths exceeded births in Polk County by 671, or an average of about 67 per year.

Between 2000 and 2007, deaths are estimated to have exceeded births by 775, or an average of about 111 per year. The gap between deaths and births has widened by 66 percent.

As a result, Polk County is currently estimated to have the largest natural population decrease (resulting from deaths exceeding births) in the state. The next closest is Haywood County with a net decline of 668, followed by Transylvania County at 578.

The natural population decline may reflect that Polk County has one of the oldest populations in the state, and fewer young people as a percentage are staying or moving here. The number of births per year has remained about the same, but the number of deaths per year has increased about 23 percent.

In 2000, Polk County had a median age of 44.95, trailing only Macon County at 45.22.

A 2006 population
estimate by the census bureau showed that 23 percent of Polk residents were over 65 years of age, compared to just 12.2 percent statewide.

In the last decade, rapid migration into the county easily offset the natural population decline. The county averaged about 453 people moving into the county each year between 1990 and 2000.

In the first seven years of this decade, Polk is estimated to have seen a net migration of about 226 people per year. Some Polk residents have said it&squo;s increasingly difficult for young people to stay or move here because of rapidly escalating land and home prices.

Trend could continue

The trend toward a slower growth rate could continue or even hasten in Polk County, considering that county commissioners recently took steps designed to slow growth. The county approved last year a 7-acre minimum lot size for new major subdivisions.

Some officials have said that change could reduce the number of new developments in the county and potentially contribute to higher land values. If so, the county&squo;s growth rate could decline further or even at some point turn negative.

The latest census bureau figures do not reflect any impact from the 7-acre minimum lot size since the population estimates were based on July 2007, before that change was made.

The latest population estimates show that the county&squo;s growth rate from July of 2006 to July of 2007 slowed compared to earlier in this decade. The census bureau estimates that the county&squo;s population rose by 81 or 0.4 percent in the most recent year.

County population estimates are calculated using administrative records to estimate components of population change, such as births, deaths, internal and international migration.