Suburbia continued to spread out from Maryland's cities last year, with mostly rural Cecil and Calvert sharing top billing as the state's fastest-growing counties, according to population estimates released yesterday.
The annual figures reported by the Census Bureau confirmed the rippling suburbanization that persists across the state, despite its nationally recognized Smart Growth policies aimed at concentrating development in and around cities and towns.
`The fact that our outlying counties are the ones that are growing the fastest certainly points to the fact that maybe ... we haven't turned the supertanker of sprawl around yet," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group advocating more compact development. She called the trend "a little frustrating."
Even real estate agents, still riding a home-buying frenzy that has driven prices up throughout the Baltimore and Washington areas, admit to some mixed feelings.
"As a Realtor, I see that as a good thing," Frannie Parks of Hagerstown said of the stream of bargain-hunting homebuyers she is seeing in Washington County from neighboring Frederick and even from distant Baltimore and Washington. "As a resident, I'm not too happy about it."
Statewide, population growth slowed from July 2003 to last July, the Census Bureau estimates, dipping below the national average in what one state planner suggested could be a reflection of gradually improving economic prospects in neighboring states.
"Not that the state is doing worse," said Mark Goldstein, of the Maryland Department of Planning. "Everybody is doing better; other states are catching up."
By census reckoning, the state added 45,748 residents for the year ending last July - an increase of 0.8 percent. That growth rate is off by 27 percent from the year before.
Growth rates in far suburban counties like Carroll, Harford and Howard also cooled, although their populations continued to increase faster than inner suburbs like Anne Arundel and Baltimore County.
In real numbers, however, Baltimore County's increase of nearly 5,700 people was third largest, behind the growth in Montgomery and Prince George's, the state's two most populous counties.
Growth tapered only slightly in the fastest-increasing counties of Calvert and Cecil, which posted 2.8 percent annual population gains, by census reckoning. Close behind were Charles and St. Mary's, which also traditionally have been home to farmers and watermen but are increasingly bedroom communities of the burgeoning Washington area.
Real estate agents, planners and residents say the population surge of outlying counties like Cecil reflects an ever-expanding search by consumers for the biggest homes their money can buy - a quest that also seems to be taking more Marylanders across the border into neighboring Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.
Moving up to fifth-fastest growth, for instance, was Washington County, which real estate agents say is drawing homebuyers from neighboring Frederick County, with only a slightly lower growth rate but much higher home prices.
Nelson K. Bolender, chairman of Cecil County commissioners, said economics and geography make it unlikely his county's surging growth will ease anytime soon.
"The land is cheap. The homes are cheaper, and we're, what, 50 miles from Baltimore and 50 miles from Philadelphia?" he said. County officials are grappling with the growth, attempting to concentrate the buildup along Interstate 95 and U.S. 40 through a mixture of development regulations and provision of water and sewer, he said.
But Cecil's growth has generated growing complaints from residents about crowded schools, deteriorating roads and vanishing rural vistas.
"I guess everybody else decided to move here, they liked the rural life," said Lindsie Carter, a Cecil resident for the past 12 years and head of a newly formed Cherry Hill community group fighting to limit development around them. "But in about five years it won't be rural anymore."
The state's growth rate last year was dwarfed by such Sun Belt states as Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas. No Maryland county ranked among the nation's 100 fastest-growing - although Calvert does when growth is measured since 2000.
Maryland's population growth was dampened because, for the first time in four years, more people moved out of state than in, statistics show.
The state tends to attract more people from other states during and just after economic slowdowns, which may reflect Maryland's ability to weather recessions with a reliance on federal government jobs and contracting, said Goldstein, the state planner.
Now that the rest of the country is recovering economically, Maryland may be losing residents to other states, Goldstein said.
The census update did offer bad news for Baltimore: Despite spreading redevelopment and rising home prices in sections of the city, it lost 7,053 residents, a decline of 1.1 percent.
City officials promptly disputed the figures and pointed out that twice in the last three years, the city has successfully challenged the estimates, leading the Census Bureau to revise its figures upward. In October, the bureau added nearly 15,000 to its estimate of the city's population as of July 2003.
Mayor Martin O'Malley - who has been using that revised number as an indication of the end of the city's half-century population decline and to symbolize the city's turnaround - said Baltimore will challenge the numbers once again.
Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.