Growth slows, shifts in state Birth rate declines

distant jobs beckon

March 22, 1997|By Liz Atwood and Marcia Myers | Liz Atwood and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF Staff writers James Bock, James M. Coram, Andrea Siegel and Craig Timberg contributed to this report.

Joan Diamond didn't need the U.S. Census Bureau to tell her that the population boom in Baltimore's suburbs is slowing.

Diamond, a registered nurse in Franklin Square Hospital Center's maternity ward, has seen the number of births at the eastern Baltimore County hospital drop from 3,910 in 1993 to 2,987 last year.

The result: fewer nurses on the floor and more frequent calls telling her not to come to work.

"Obviously, no one likes that," she said yesterday.

It's the same in nearby counties.

Although the suburbs continue to grow, the pace is more moderate -- in some counties, about half the rate of the early 1990s.

Suburban growth appears to be slowing for several reasons: a decline in the birth rate, a sluggish economy and an increase in Maryland residents seeking their fortunes out of state.

But if the slower pace has brought worries for Diamond, it is providing a measure of relief for county officials who have struggled with overcrowded schools and congested roads since the early '90s boom years.

"I think quite frankly it's a good thing," said Malcolm D. Rivkin, a planning and development consultant in Bethesda.

"It provides a breathing space for communities and the region to take a hard look at the future in a way that it's very difficult to do when they're trying to play catch-up."

There's still plenty in the latest census figures to cause concern. Baltimore is losing thousands of people each year, while the outlying suburbs continue to grow faster than the rest of the state.

Census figures released this week show a general leveling-off in most suburban Baltimore counties since 1991 that is consistent with the overall slowdown statewide, said Ronald Kreitner, director of the Maryland Office of Planning.

"The trend is still one of high growth in the outer suburbs and new suburbs."

Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties grew by 32,846 people from 1990 to 1991 -- based on the period from July 1 to June 30.

By comparison, those localities gained 18,994 people from 1995 to 1996. The new figures do not diminish concerns about suburban sprawl, however.

Howard County still added 5,048 people from 1995 to 1996. Though the growth rate has declined in recent years, some residents say they haven't noticed.

"The traffic is worse than ever. The schools are more crowded than ever," said Peter J. Oswald, president of the Greater Beaufort Park Citizens Association in Fulton. "It's just all over the place. It's just one after the other being developed."

Howard County has already spent $178 million on a school-construction binge, including 17 new schools and renovations or additions on most of the others since 1986.

At the same time, its debt has tripled, leaving it with the highest per-capita debt in the state -- $1,650 per resident.

And it remains one of Maryland's fastest-growing localities despite the slower pace.

Overall, Maryland's population increased 1.3 percent from 1990 to 1991, but the rate has steadily slowed and from 1995 to 1996 grew at only 0.6 percent.

"Births are dropping and deaths are going up slowly with the aging population," said Michel A. Lettre, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Planning.

Births in the state dropped 10.4 percent from 1990 to 1996, while deaths increased 12 percent.

Maryland's economy also has played a role.

The state's recovery has been slower than the rest of the nation, prompting some residents to look for better jobs elsewhere. More than 36,000 people have left the state since 1992.

Rivkin said the population growth rate will continue to level off unless the state receives an unexpected infusion of development.

Change of focus

In Baltimore County -- which now has 43,000 more residents than the city -- the focus has switched from creating new growth areas to revitalizing older communities.

"You can see the pendulum swinging," said County Planning Director Arnold F. Pat Keller.

Although the county continues to fight sprawl, it is becoming increasingly worried about filling homes that are being put up for sale as owners go on to nursing homes or die.

A diminishing supply of land, as well as an effort to reduce zoning densities, will continue to have an impact on the number of new residents in the county, Keller said.

In Anne Arundel, slower growth is predicted for the next 25

years.

"Our county is maturing," said James J. Cannelli, assistant director of the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement. Falling birth rates have had an impact, and migration from inner suburbs is not as vigorous as in the 1970s and 1980s.

But now people from Washington and Baltimore are leapfrogging over Anne Arundel, planners say. The outer ring of suburbs is seeing a greater rate of growth, as people move directly there.

Carroll County commissioners say the slowing is the result of growth-control measures they have enacted, although builders say the declining birth rate is responsible.

Either way, officials hope for a chance to catch up to the county's double-digit population growth -- up 16.4 percent since 1990.

In rural Carroll, where some roads are still unpaved and municipal utilities scarce, the County Commission and neighborhood activists have tried to slow growth.

Quashing development plans

Until last June, Carroll's planning commission approved virtually every subdivision plan coming before it, including many in the cramped Eldersburg-Sykesville area.

But after adopting tough criteria on school overcrowding last year, the planning panel began rejecting subdivision plans at the same pace it had earlier approved them.

Carroll planning director Philip J. Rovang said the decline in the county growth rate -- from 3.1 percent in 1991 to 2.4 percent last year -- "may not be that significant."

He added, "We may be noting a drop in activity that will go up again. We can't get too excited about a brief period of time."

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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