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Walking in Loudoun's Shoes

Fla.'s Flagler Learns About Life as Fastest-Growing County

By Ron Word
Associated Press
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page LZ06

Bob Aiken had mixed emotions when he learned that Flagler County, where his Palm Coast home is located, had been ranked the fastest-growing county in the United States.

The new U.S. Census Bureau figures are good for Aiken's real estate business but not necessarily for his quality of life in Flagler County, which is on the Atlantic Coast about 60 miles south of Jacksonville.

"I hope it is managed properly," said Aiken, 60. "This is a gigantic boom. In 1979, this was a ghost town."

Flagler County grew 10.1 percent from July 1, 2003, to July 1, 2004, adding 6,309 residents -- the biggest percentage change in the nation. Kendall County, Ill., near Chicago, was second with an 8.3 percent increase. The new figures dropped Loudoun County to No. 3, down from the No. 1 spot. Its population increased an estimated 8.1 percent.

(The county with the highest numerical increase was Maricopa County, Ariz., which added 112,000 residents.)

The population of Flagler County, between spring break capital Daytona Beach and the nation's oldest city, St. Augustine, was 69,005 on July 1, 2004, more than double the 2000 census population count of 32,732.

"The word is out, and people are moving in," said Dick Morris, executive director of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce.

He said the county's laid-back lifestyle, pleasant weather and golf courses have made it a mecca for sun-starved retirees from the North.

Although county officials say they are gleeful about the ranking and think it will bring more businesses and industry to the area, residents are more circumspect about the downside of growth: traffic, urban sprawl, inadequate number of good jobs and a school system bursting at the seams.

Stephen Marro, executive director of Enterprise Flagler, a public-private economic development group, said he doesn't see any slowing of the boom, noting that the labor force has increased from 18,000 to 27,000 in the past 18 months.

Huge projects are on the horizon, including a $230 million golf course and resort, gated housing projects, condominiums and a shopping mall. An elementary school and high school are being built and will open at full capacity, said Nick Sacia, deputy director of Enterprise Flagler.

But with growth comes the need for more infrastructure.

"The question is: Can we handle it?" Morris said.

Rose Vullo, 57, co-owner of The Hair Gallery, said she wanted to see something done about the roads.

"We need more traffic lights," said Vullo, who moved from New Jersey to Flagler County 18 years ago.

Mindy McHenry, 30, said a lack of quality jobs is a big problem. Many of her friends work in Jacksonville, more than a 100-mile round trip.

"I wonder if we have a city council that is prepared to deal with the fastest-growing county," she said. "I am worried about Palm Coast getting trashed."

Florida led all states with 14 counties among the nation's 100 fastest growing, according to the Census Bureau. Other fast-growing counties were in the South or West. Two South Dakota counties, Hanson and Lincoln near Sioux Falls, were fourth and fifth fastest-growing at 7.9 and 7.5 percent, respectively, the Census Bureau reported. Los Angeles was again the most populous county, with 9.9 million residents.

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