MOUNTAIN GREEN, Morgan County — Ashley and Gavin McCleary hopped from house to house in Layton, Ogden, Syracuse, and Farmington, but they didn't feel at home until their family of six settled into a small mountainside community in Morgan County five years ago.
"It's not suburbia and it's not out-on-your-own country. It's that kind of perfect in-between where you feel like you've got a little bit more space, less traffic, clean air, and you're still close to all of the amenities and the work you need to have access to," Gavin McCleary said. "It's a hidden secret."
But more newcomers are tracing the McClearys' steps, new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau confirm. The figures point to rapid population growth in their northern Utah county over a one-year period ending in July 2017.
Now home to roughly 11,800 people, Morgan jumped from the nation's 44th fastest-growing county to eighth, according to the estimates. The increase of about 500 is meaningful for the longtime farming community that has sprouted more subdivisions in recent years.
"It's a small county to begin with. Any increase in growth is going to be a large percentage," explained Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Its proximity to Ogden and to trails, reservoirs and towering peaks also makes for short work commutes and good quality of life, Perlich added.
The McClearys know firsthand. In spring, the parents and their three sons and daughter — ages 5, 7, 9 and 12 — sometimes ski at Snowbasin Resort and then mountain bike on trails near home on the same day.
It takes more planning to organize trips to the store down the canyon road to Morgan, Ashley McCleary said, but "it just is so picturesque every day that it's hard to take for granted."
But they also have experienced for themselves the area's rising popularity. They faced a tight housing market in 2016 when they were building a new home and found it difficult to find a short-term apartment to lease until the paint dried, Gavin McCleary said.
Morgan is not alone. It's one of three Utah counties that have cracked the top 10 list of the nation's fastest growing. Wasatch County took third place, behind Virginia's Falls Church and Comal County in Texas. Tooele County came in seventh.
The three Utah counties are so-called ring areas. They're not dense enough to be considered metropolitan areas, but they're part of expanding urban communities, Perlich said.
"The Intermountain West continues to be an area of growth and dynamism. Within the state itself, that story of growth is happening very unevenly," Perlich said. "The kind of growth you're seeing in the metropolitan areas is just not shared by these rural counties."
Uintah County, bordering Colorado, is among the fastest-shrinking in the country, according to the figures, with a drop of 2.9 percent, or 1,044 fewer people, down to a total of 35,150. The drop is related to the region's volatile energy extraction industry, Perlich said.
The change in Utah is small in the broader, national picture.
When sheer numbers are considered, Arizona's Maricopa County, which surrounds Phoenix and its suburbs, swelled the most in the one-year period, with 73,600 people, a 1.7 percent change that puts the current population at slightly more than 4.3 million. Las Vegas' Clark County came in second.
Perlich, the top state demographer tasked with tracking the census figures, said the new numbers are consistent with her team's independent analyses that rely on local data using different methods.
Other things to know about growth in Utah:
Rapid pace in St. George: Southwestern Utah's biggest city, population 165,600, is expanding faster than any other metropolitan area in the country, the figures show. It logged a 4 percent boost — about 6,400 people — in the one-year timeframe. The newcomers largely are coming from other parts of Utah, but some also move from California, said Perlich.
And many of the new residents are of retirement age, confirms Perlich's own analysis of Medicare data. Just behind St. George were Myrtle Beach and its surrounding areas in South and North Carolina, with a 3.7 percent growth rate.
Provo/Orem continues to grow: The two-city Utah County area with a high student population also was a top 10 metropolis, with a 2.7 percent increase — about 16,000 people — putting the total population at 617,600.6 comments on this story
LDS culture influence: Utah has the second-highest fertility rate in the nation: Women of child-bearing age in the Beehive State have more kids than in any other state except South Dakota. Utah's growth rate has slowed as the births have dipped and its population ages, Perlich said, but it still remains in the top three, behind neighboring Idaho, which had the most-rapid expansion of any state, and Nevada, according to an earlier Census review.
"For the foreseeable future, Utah remains the heart of the 'Mormon Culture' region," Perlich added. "Births clearly, significantly exceed deaths in Utah. We've got strong natural increase. But it's not the mainstay of growth throughout the entire state, and Washington County is a clear example of that."