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Census: County population growth picks up again

Posting its highest rate of population growth since the housing bubble, Palm Beach County added nearly 22,000 people in 2014, according to new Census estimates.

The county grew by 21,511 residents from July 1, 2013, to July 1, 2014, the fourth-largest increase among Florida counties and 21st in the nation. Palm Beach County added more residents for the year than did some entire states, including Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi and Pennsylvania.

Palm Beach County now counts nearly 1.4 million residents, making it the nation’s 28th-largest county — and a bigger population center than 10 states.

Palm Beach County’s population trends are driven by people moving here to work or to retire. During the depths of the Great Recession, when Palm Beach County unemployment reached double digits and people in other parts of the country couldn’t sell their homes, population growth ground to a halt.

“The recession took a big toll on migration,” said Scott Cody, a demographer at the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Now, though, a stronger job market and recovering real estate values have restarted Florida’s growth machine. Because Palm Beach County’s deaths outnumbered births last year, population growth comes entirely from people moving to the county.

The economic recovery has been a boon for baby boomers who needed to cash in some stocks and sell their homes up north before they could move south.

“A significant amount of wealth has been created since the bottom of the downturn, and a significant amount of that lost home equity has been recovered as well,” said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida.

In a bit of a paradox, homebuilding — the most obvious economic sign of a growing population — has yet to crank up.

Housing analyst David Cobb, regional director at Metrostudy in Palm Beach Gardens, pointed to a variety of reasons for the lack of construction — the glut of homes left over from the housing bubble, steep land prices, and regulatory hurdles for large proposed projects such as the Minto West development on a former citrus grove and Avenir in Palm Beach Gardens.

“The population is growing again, but the growth in housing starts is not mirroring that, because of the supply restraints and the affordability,” Cobb said.

The return to growth also means a return to worries about traffic jams and environmental damage.

“People have become complacent to some degree with the economic downturn,” said Vivian Young, spokeswoman for 1000 Friends of Florida, a growth management organization in Tallahassee. “A lot of the state efforts have been weakened.”

In 2014, Palm Beach County posted its highest growth rate in nine years. Still, population growth has yet to return to the levels of the early 2000s, when the county added as many as 34,000 people in a single year.

Palm Beach County’s slower growth also underscores the law of large numbers, which says it’s hard for big counties to keep growing at a fast clip. The county’s 1.6 percent growth rate ranked a middling 23rd among the state’s 67 counties.

Sumter County, home to The Villages, grew by 5.4 percent last year, the highest growth rate in the state and one of the highest in the nation.

The Villages is known as a Republican stronghold, and other red counties also posted strong growth. Collier, Lee and Manatee counties each grew by more than 2.5 percent. But many rural counties in North Florida lost people last year, and neither party seems to gain a decided advantage from the latest population trends.

“We remain quite purple,” Snaith said. “We’re on the razor’s edge politically.”

Political pollster Brad Coker, of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, said population patterns reveal no clear picture of which party Florida voters will support in next year’s presidential election. Floridians supported George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

“It’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions,” Coker said. “Independents have actually gained more voters over the past 10 years than either party.”

Florida clearly is gaining political clout. The state has passed New York to become the nation’s third-largest, the Census Bureau said in December, and Florida’s population ballooned by an average of 800 people a day last year.

The University of Florida’s Cody notes that the Census Bureau’s numbers aren’t precise counts, just estimates arrived at from scrutinizing such factors as tax returns, Medicare benefits, births and deaths. UF’s own population estimates, which are calculated differently, are similar but a bit lower than the Census Bureau’s estimates.

“We wonder whether they’re running a little high,” Cody said.

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