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Florida growth slowing

We fall from 4th to 9th in list of expanding states

Sun-Sentinel - 12/23/2006 12:00:00 AM
by Babita Persaud and Elizabeth Baier

A U.S. census report released Friday shows that the boom for the Sunshine State has slowed, with Florida growing only 1.8 percent in 2006 after back-to-back years of adding more than 2 percent to the population.

So, is this just a blip?

"No," said Stefan Rayer, research demographer at the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "It's back to normal."

In 2005, Florida was ranked No. 4 in the list of fast-growing states, just behind Arizona, Nevada and Idaho.

This year, Florida slips to No. 9.

Fabio Naranjo, senior research associate with the Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University, said economics is playing a big role.

"We have seen an outflow of population," Naranjo said. "There are people from southern counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach who have been moving to other southern states like Georgia and Alabama where housing costs are lower."

Florida's existing-home median price -- half the homes sold for more, half for less -- tops $240,000. Costs are higher in markets such as South Florida, where many homes are fetching $350,000.

On top of a mortgage, for those who do buy, insurance costs have skyrocketed. Some premiums are up by more than 25 percent since the 2004 hurricane season.

The impact is starting to ripple throughout the state: Home sales are down more than 20 percent, school enrollment shrank in the fall student count, and state government is preparing for a revenue drop based on population projections.

"Florida is still strong economically, and that will continue," said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. "But the momentum has slowed."

Palm Beach County this year started requiring developers to limit some new home prices for low- and middle-income buyers and other communities are creating incentive programs for building "affordable housing."

The state's population during the next decade may not increase as much as it did during the past 10 years, but it won't be as dramatic a decline as some predict, said South Florida real estate analyst Bradley Hunter.

"Once the affordability gets resolved, that will help bring the families back," Hunter said.

Naranjo agreed, adding that recent population projections still show a crowded future for Florida in general, and South Florida, specifically. FAU's Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions in March released its regional report, Charting the Course: Where is South Florida Heading?, which painted a broad picture of what could happen in the seven counties from Vero Beach to Key West as the region's population soars from 5.9 million to 8.4 million people by 2030.

The report recommended local governments and businesses adopt a broader view and work together for the region to sustain itself.

"We still will need to take the necessary steps to make sure we can accommodate the population," Naranjo said.

Across other parts of the South, the 2005 tropical-storm season was a factor in the drop in population growth.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana's population was on the rise, growing by 12,000 to 4.5 million by mid-2005.

By the July 2006 count, Louisiana had lost almost 220,000 residents, about 5 percent.

Florida remains the fourth-most populous state, with 18.1 million people. The state's population should double to 36 million people and development could include 7 million more acres of rural land, according to a University of Florida study produced for the growth watchdog group 1,000 Friends of Florida.

Allowing development to claim too much of Florida's natural, open spaces drove people away from the state, said Drew Martin, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Loxahatchee Group.

The state and local governments need to preserve more land and keep development from sprawling into rural areas, said Martin, of Lake Worth.

"The more we build, the less desirable the state is," Martin said Friday.

Staff Writer Andy Reid contributed to this report.

Elizabeth Baier can be reached at ebaier@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4637.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

The U.S. census issues state population figures annually in December. The period of collecting the 2006 data runs from July 1, 2005, to July 1, 2006. Some of the released findings:

Arizona was the nation's fastest-growing state at a 3.6 percent change, breaking Nevada's grip on the title.

The Northeast region grew by only 62,000 people. In contrast, the South grew by 1.5 million and the West by 1 million. The Midwest added 281,000 people.

The South now accounts for 36 percent of the nation's total population, with the West making up 23 percent, the Midwest 22 percent and the Northeast 18 percent.

Florida remains the fourth-most populous state, with 18.1 million people. More than 321,000 moved here in 2006, less than the 401,000 who came in 2005.

-- SOURCE: Orlando Sentinel