Suburb growth picks up speed

Population has been accelerated since '98, according to census

Baltimore still shrinking

Five nearest counties gained total of about 22,000 in latest survey

March 30, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

A robust economy, foreign immigration and a continuing exodus of city residents accelerated population growth in Baltimore's suburbs from 1998 to 1999, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The five counties near the city gained more than 22,000 people in the latest reporting period, compared with 17,525 the year before. Baltimore, which had slowed its population decline for a couple years, lost nearly 13,000 people.

The statistics, compiled before the 2000 census began, quantify what most area residents know: Suburban congestion with its traffic jams and overcrowded schools is worsening, while the city is struggling to retain residents.

"The outer suburban counties still have the largest growth," said Michel Lettre, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Planning, though each of the five localities near the city -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- showed an increase in population.

Overall, Maryland's population grew by about 41,600 from mid-1998 to mid-1999 -- the largest increase in five years. Several factors contributed to the growth, including births, which increased for the first time during the decade, foreign immigration and a decline in the number of residents leaving.

"Maryland was losing population to other states, but that trend has dampened," said Lettre. With job growth in Maryland outpacing the national average, the state could start to see more people coming in from other states than leaving, Lettre said. For most of the 1990s, Maryland lost more residents to other states than it gained.

Foreign immigrants helped make up that loss, adding more than 17,000 people to the state in the latest year and more than 130,000 during the decade.

The state's most populous localities as of July were Montgomery County with about 852,000 residents, Prince George's County with about 782,000 and Baltimore County with about 724,000.

The numbers released this month are the last population estimates from the Census Bureau before it issues a count based on the 2000 census.

The estimates are based on 1990 census data as well as more recent income tax returns, Medicare information and data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The loss of city residents was more severe than expected, but city Planning Director Charles Graves said he did not dispute the figures.

"Our view is that although we have seen the continuing decline, the city is putting things in place to make people feel more comfortable living in the city," he said.

Baltimore is cleaning up its grime and trying to make neighborhoods safer, he said.

The city's population is estimated at 632,680 after a 50-year decline. In the 1990s, the city lost more than 103,000 people, while the neighboring suburbs gained more than 200,000.

Most of the city's loss is attributed to residents' leaving for other localities, but the city's population is also stymied by a low birthrate, noted Dunbar Brooks, a demographer with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Graves said he expects Baltimore's losses to ease, with the population leveling off at about 600,000. In 1950, the city had nearly 950,000 residents.

In the suburbs, Howard County showed the largest gain between 1998 and 1999, with an increase of nearly 8,000 people -- more than any other jurisdiction in the state except Montgomery County.

Anne Arundel County gained 5,800 residents; Harford County gained 3,340; Carroll County, 2,780; and Baltimore County, 2,360. The increases were larger in each case than they had been in the previous 12-month period; the growth is not likely to abate soon.

Developers are pressing for large new projects in most counties, including two large subdivisions that would add 2,500 homes in southern Howard County and 1,372 homes in Anne Arundel County's Marley Neck.

Though the latest U.S. Census report shows Howard leading the region in population growth, county officials said they were perplexed by the numbers.

"We track development, and the residential development has been steady throughout the decade," said Jeff Bronow, chief of research for the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

The number of homes built in the county has remained steady at about 2,000 a year, he said.

Gregory Harper, a demographer with the Census Bureau, said discrepancies might arise in the estimates, because the building permit data doesn't take into account the size of households or the vacancy rates of existing homes and apartments.

Based on experience, Harper said, the latest census estimates should be within 3 percent of the population numbers that will be available next year from the 2000 census.

Lettre agreed that the Census Bureau estimates are consistent with the state's expectations.

The state's Smart Growth initiative is designed to curb sprawl, but, Lettre said, it is too soon to notice an impact from the program. Census data might not reflect such an impact, he said, and any effect is not likely to be seen for several years. "It will be in this next decade on which to judge the Smart Growth program," he said.

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