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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Steve and Michelle Allen work to install curtain rods Wednesday, May 20, 2015, as they move into their new home in Heber.

SALT LAKE CITY — When Steve Allen retired last month, he knew he wanted a home closer to his children and grandchildren in Utah.

He and his wife, Michelle, considered homes in Wyoming, Idaho and several locations along the Wasatch Front. But what ultimately brought them from their town in Northern California to a home in the Heber Valley was the view.

"You walk out of a store and you stand there with your mouth open for a while, looking at some of the surrounding hills covered in snow," Steve Allen said.

That's not the only perk to living in Wasatch County.

"We like living in an area that is a small town, not a lot of traffic, a lot of beauty surrounding it, and yet (in) very close proximity to major shopping in Salt Lake, educational opportunities in Utah County and the skiing," he said. "We're very excited about that."

While the Allens represent a small portion of Utah's population that comes from other states, they aren't alone in contributing to the fastest-growing county in the state, and one of the fastest-growing states in the country.

Utah's population grew by more than 40,000 people — almost 1.4 percent — from July 2013 to July 2014, with a five-year growth rate that ranks fourth in the nation, according to estimates scheduled for release by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday.

During that year, Utah added almost 14,000 new homes, with a housing growth rate of nearly 1.4 percent that was second only to North Dakota. In the previous five years, Utah gained almost 43,000 new homes, ranking third in the nation.

While Utah continues to grow faster than most others, growth rates both here and nationally are on a steady decline as the population ages. And the vast majority of new Utah residents aren't from out-of-state or out-of-country, according to Pamela Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economics and Business Research.

"By Utah standards, these are really pretty moderate population growth rates," Perlich said. "Births have been declining every year since the Great Recession occurred. So the natural increase is slower now because the population is aging."

Census estimates show more people moved out of Utah than into the state between July 2013 and July 2014, with a net domestic loss of 1,235 residents. Utah's capital city lost 398 residents that year.

The greater Wasatch Front area, including Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties, collectively gained almost 29,000 residents that year, bringing the total to more than 2.2 million residents as of July.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated international immigration to the state at 5,465 people during the same period, but an overwhelming portion of that number is Utah missionaries returning home from serving abroad, Perlich said.

"Right now, we really don't have international migration to the state," she said. "That era is over for now. … The greatest share of population growth now is just natural increase — births greater than deaths."

Between the two summers, Utah had well over 51,000 births and 15,000 deaths. The total estimated population for the state on July 1 of this year is 2,998,590, indicating the state will likely reach 3 million residents before the year is over.

Wednesday's Census estimates show the U.S. now has 10 cities with more than 1 million residents with the recent addition of San Jose, Calif. New York City remained the nation's most populous city at almost 8.5 million. The U.S. population as of Wednesday was estimated at just under 321 million.

New homes

The Census estimates also show strong increases in home construction. Last year, Utah ranked second in the nation for its housing growth rate of about 1.4 percent and third in the nation for its five-year rate of just under 4.4 percent.

Counties within the Wasatch Front had a one-year increase of more than 9,700 homes, bringing the five-year increase to nearly 30,000.

As of July, Utah had well over 1 million homes.

But as with population growth, home construction was heavily impacted by the recession, which brought an abrupt end to an explosive housing boom.

This is especially true for Washington County, which was "juiced up" by homeowners looking to purchase a second home using equity, according to James Wood, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the U.

In 2005, the county issued roughly 3,500 building permits for residential construction, but in less than three years, that number dropped by as much as 75 percent, Wood said.

"Clearly, it wasn't sustainable," Wood said.

Housing construction remains far behind where it once was, but the market has mostly recovered. Last year, Washington County had a one-year housing growth rate of 2.9 percent — second-highest in the state — with more than 1,700 new homes.

"It's not the kind of rip-roaring growth that we saw in the lead-up to the real estate bubble and collapse," Perlich said. "It's a much more sustainable rate of growth."

In more urban parts of the state, multi-family dwellings continue to be in high demand, contributing significantly to Utah's housing numbers, according to Wood.

"Right now in Salt Lake County, we have over 5,000 apartment units under construction," he said. "There's another 2,500 under construction in Utah County. Most of those permits were taken in 2013 (or) 2014."

What's driving the demand for multi-family housing is unclear, however, some say it's likely a mix of changes in Utah's age demographics and families who still haven't completely recovered from the recession, Wood said.

"A lot of people think that the millennials have a different housing preference. … It's probably partly true," he said. "I think a lot of it is driven by economics. People can't qualify for homes."

Off the front

The Wasatch Front holds more than three-quarters of Utah's population, but Census estimates show the fastest growth is occurring in places such as Uintah, Wasatch and Washington counties.

Wasatch County's one-year population and housing unit growth rates, which were higher than any other county in Utah, both ranked 17th out of 3,142 counties nationwide in the latest census release. Its one-year population growth rate was more than 2.9 percent above the state average, with a housing growth rate more than 1.9 percent above the state average.

Doug Smith, director of planning for Wasatch County, estimated that roughly 80 percent of new homes built in the Heber Valley are primary residences, while at least half of the new homes built near Jordanelle Reservoir are secondary homes.

Much of the growth is overflow from surrounding areas, he said.

"We're seeing people move up from the valley because really, we're not a bad commute from Provo, Orem or (the) Salt Lake Valley," he said. "Housing prices are probably a little bit higher than certain areas of the valley, but quite a bit lower than Summit County. I think we're seeing Park City people sell out and come down here and buy a nicer place or a bigger piece of property."

With growth come new challenges. U.S. Highway 40 brings traffic into the middle of Heber City, creating roadway congestion in a condensed area. Currently, the downtown section of the highway sees about 26,000 trips per day, though the area's maximum capacity is 30,000 trips, according to Smith.

The county has been purchasing land to construct a road that would bypass the city, but until the project begins, traffic remains heavy.

"Downtown Heber, with all the tanker trucks and all the traffic, it's not the most pleasant place to walk or shop," Smith said. "I could see the way that we're going, Main Street could really have problems in another 10 years."

Another challenge brought by an expanding population, which isn't unique to Wasatch County, is education capacity and funding. In the next 10 years, Utah is projected to gain as many as 50,000 college students. Thirty-five years from now, Utah's K-12 schools will have to sustain close to 1 million students.

Even with the challenges that lie ahead, Utah remains on "a good growth trajectory," showing sustainable economic growth for the new labor force and a diverse economy that brings overall stability, Perlich said.

As for the numbers themselves, "I think it's just another piece to the puzzle," she said.

"We have all these different data sets that come in and give us clues about what's going on. It's always a bit of a mystery to figure these things out, but this data set is very consistent with what we've seen from many other data sets," she said. "Utah is in a very good position right now."

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