County's population skyrockets with baby boom, commuting and Columbia, but pace is likely to slow

Numbers tell story of growth

March 19, 2006|By CONNOR ADAMS SHEETS | CONNOR ADAMS SHEETS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Long before it was officially designated the 21st of Maryland's 23 counties in 1851, Howard County was considered prime real estate.

By 1699, Thomas Brown, an early explorer and settler, had distinguished himself as one of the first American settlers to lay eyes on the county's rolling hills - which now have been booming with development and growth for decades.

The county's quaintest town, Ellicott City, was founded four years before Howard's most famous son, Charles Carroll III, signed the Declaration of Independence.

Carroll entertained visitors including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe at his Howard County estate, Doughoregan Manor, and ever since the county has been a weekend playground for the elite of Baltimore and Washington and, more recently, a home for thousands of daily commuters who flock to the city to work.

Marylanders, particularly residents of Howard County, know much of this history. Data from the U.S. Census can expand that knowledge and illuminate exactly how the sixth-most-populated county in Maryland grew and rapidly evolved in the last several decades.

Explosive growth

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Howard's population was 266,738 as of July 1, 2004, an explosion of nearly 638 percent from the county's 1960 population of 36,152. That growth rate is the highest in Maryland; no other county in the state has increased in population at such a rapid rate in the same period.

During the same period, the population of neighboring Baltimore County increased by thousands more, from 492,428 people to 780,821 - but at a rate of only 58.6 percent.

From 1860, the first year the county was included in the census, to 1950, Howard's population grew from 13,338 to 23,119, an increase of a scant 73.3 percent. But in 10 years alone, from 1950 to 1960, its population jumped 56.4 percent.

As recently as 1940, Howard County was the fifth-smallest of the state's counties. By 1980, it was seventh-largest, and by 1990 it had claimed the No. 6 spot.

These census data are very telling about the history of Howard County, and of the country as a whole. The 1950s were the time of post-World War II baby boomers, and the swift increase in population countrywide during this time can be attributed in large part to this phenomenon.

Columbia factor

But why was Howard County so popular? Why were families moving to this area and not into eastern coastal areas or western woodlands?

The population jumped 91.5 percent between 1970 and 1980, and grew an additional 58 percent by 1990, when the population hit 187,328, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

These data seem to be a reflection of one more crucial factor in understanding the population eruption Howard County has been experiencing since 1950: Columbia.

Columbia, now a community of nearly 100,000, was just an idea in a few planners' heads in the early 1960s. In July 1967, the first residents of Columbia moved in, according to the city's Web site, and its first industrial company set up shop by December of the same year, thus kicking off the 40-year Columbia craze.

It's hard to determine Columbia's exact effect on the boom in Howard County, but Jeff Bronow, chief of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning Research Division, says it was significant.

"Right now, Columbia is almost 40 percent of the county, and Columbia was nothing in the '60s," Bronow said. "That really occurred in the '70s and '80s, and it really started slowing down at about 1995."

Columbia is widely recognized as one of the most successful of the many planned communities established during the mid-20th century, a list that includes Garden City, N.Y., and Cergy-Pontoise, France, one of Columbia's two sister cities. Columbia offers its residents 27 public schools and more than 5,300 acres of parkland, playgrounds and open space, according to its Web site. Its combined commercial and residential tax base is more than $7.1 billion.

As of the 2000 census, Columbia was second to Baltimore in population among Maryland "sub-county entities," though Columbia is considered a "census-designated place," not a full-fledged town, because it has no municipal government.

Commuter revolution

Another crucial factor in Howard's amazing growth in the past 50 years has been its location.

"Howard County's proximity to both Washington and Baltimore has clearly played a major part in its growth," Bronow said.

Before commuting became such a pervasive part of Marylanders' lives, the county's proximity to the two cities was not such that Howard County residents could dash into town to work.

Before the advent of cars, people needed to live much closer to their workplaces, and, as such, for much of the first half of the 20th century it was impractical for Howard County residents to travel 20 or 30 miles to the city to work.

Now Howard County is a suburban magnet, an oasis offering proximity to big-city workplaces and suburban comforts, two qualities young families and professionals look for when deciding where to settle.

Slowing rate

However, the Department of Natural Resources expects a sharp decrease in the Howard's growth rate in the next few decades.

By 2030, DNR's projections show the population of Howard County up from a July 2004 census estimate of 266,738 to 295,000, an increase of only 10.6 percent over 27 years.

"We had a lot of growth in the '80s and '70s," Bronow said. "Things have been slowing down in the '80s and '90s, and now our rate of growth is less than 1 percent a year."

This rate is comparatively small, but it represents an increase of 4,000 people a year, half the 1980s rate of 8,000 people moving to the county each year.

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