Suburban population growth slowing Census also finds loss of city residents down

March 19, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Ed Lee and Laura Sullivan contributed to this article.

In a shift that could hearten area residents weary of suburban sprawl, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that fewer people left Baltimore last year than in each of the previous three years, while growth in the region's suburbs continues to taper off.

"There might be a little ray of hope," said Michel Lettre, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Planning.

Data released this week show that between July 1996 and July 1997, 16,422 people left Baltimore, compared with 17,233 the year before. The Baltimore suburbs, meanwhile, gained 19,996 residents in the most recent period, down from a 20,052 gain the previous year.

The numbers could be good news for communities where growth -- and such side effects as crowded schools and congested roads -- has often dominated the political agenda.

In Carroll County, for example, residents are battling a proposed $30 million shopping center on Route 32 in Eldersburg, fearing traffic congestion and declining property values. And in Baltimore County, crowded schools on the west side have been attributed in large part to residents' moving from Baltimore.

Demographic experts say it's too early for the changes to reflect Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth Initiative to control sprawl. The numbers could reflect normal variations or flaws in demographers' estimates.

But local planners were optimistic.

"This is good news for the city and good news for the region," said Baltimore County planning director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller.

Baltimore planning director Charles Graves said home ownership programs and efforts to stabilize neighborhoods might be paying off. "I think the trend is going down in terms of population loss," he said.

Still, the city's overall population decrease of 14,471 last year -- which includes births and deaths -- was more than twice what it was annually at the start of the decade. And sprawl continues in Maryland's rural southern counties and on the Eastern Shore. Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties gained 7,694 residents last year -- more than the overall increase in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties.

The Washington suburbs posted the state's biggest gains, adding 16,030 people in the year ending in July. Yet even there, the increase was the smallest of any year in the decade.

In the Baltimore region, Anne Arundel gained most residents with an increase of 4,791, followed by Howard, 4,377. But those gains are small compared with a few years ago when those counties each increased by 7,000 a year.

"The new numbers track what we expected," said John A. Morris, spokesman for Anne Arundel County's land-use office. "The county's growth has slowed, and we expect it will continue to."

But Dunbar Brooks, a demographer with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a regional planning agency, cautions against overstating the significance of the trend. He pointed out that the numbers don't show where the growth is occurring within the counties. While the population increases might be leveling off, sprawl might not be, he said.

"It's still growth, and you've still got to plan for it," he said.

Some counties said the data show that their plans are working and that growth is becoming more manageable.

"It's predictable, it's steady, it's 50 percent of what it used to be in the 1980s," said Joseph Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning. "Our method of controlling growth is working."

Rutter credited the leveling off to an allocation system that limits the number of new housing units in six county regions.

Harford County also credited its growth controls, including adequate-public-facilities laws designed to delay development where schools are crowded and require builders to make infrastructure improvements.

Harford's growth has declined from an increase of more than 5,000 a year at the start of the decade to 3,652 last year.

Baltimore County gained more people than the previous year. The county's population rose by 3,804 between 1996 and 1997 -- slightly more than the previous year and nearly 1,000 more than the county gained six years ago.

Keller said the county's growth continues because homes are affordable and easily accessible to jobs, but he said he expects the number of new residents will begin to decline in five years as land for new homes dwindles.

In Baltimore, the decline in population stems mainly from residents leaving the city, but Lettre noted that births have declined while deaths have increased slightly. The Office of Planning's latest forecasts show the city's population leveling off after 2010 at 624,000.

"We're ultimately a little more optimistic," Lettre said.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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