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Area makes room for the newcomers

POSTED: July 15, 2008 5:01 a.m.

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Many North Georgia cities are having to loosen their belts to accommodate their swelling populations.

Estimates released from the U.S. Census Bureau this week show that most cities in the area — including cities within Hall, Jackson, Dawson and Forsyth counties — have experienced significant increases in their populations since the last official census was taken in 2000.

Officials from those cities have varied feelings on the census estimates, with most lauding their efforts at controlled growth and others merely tolerating their proliferating populations.

Since the last census, the bureau estimates that the populations of Braselton, Dawsonville and Flowery Branch have more than doubled. The rates of growth in Jefferson and cities in Hall County are not far behind.

Braselton and Flowery Branch officials bet that their populations are higher than the bureau’s most recent estimates, which project their populations as of July 2007.

Braselton Town Manager Jennifer Scott says that Census Bureau estimates for the town’s population are much lower than the town’s actual population. The bureau’s official estimates claim Braselton’s population grew 155 percent from 2000 to 2007, and that in July 2007 the town’s population was a little more than 3,000.

But Scott said that last year, the Census Bureau estimate was less than the number of registered voters in the town, and that the same holds true for this year’s estimate. Considering that not all Braselton residents are registered voters, and many have children younger than the voting age, it’s likely the population is much higher than the bureau’s estimates, Scott said.

"We don’t have that many houses sitting empty," he said.

Clermont Mayor James Nix also said the Census Bureau’s estimates of his city’s population are lower than the actual numbers. He said that in 2000, the bureau underestimated the city’s population and reported that it was only 419.

"They missed a whole lot of the people," Nix said. "When they came back and did it again, they found 600 as the population then."

However, the numbers were never changed officially, Nix said. The bureau’s 2007 estimate lists Clermont’s population at 765, but Nix says that since 2000 three subdivisions have been developed and he is pretty sure there are about 1,000 people living in Clermont now.

Nix said he plans to work closer with Census Bureau officials to get a more accurate accounting of Clermont residents in 2010.

"When you’re in a small town like this, you can go around and count houses and come up with pretty good census numbers," he said.

Flowery Branch Mayor Diane Hirling also said she was surprised that the Census Bureau’s 2007 estimates for the city were not higher than the estimated 3,966.

She said Flowery Branch officials anticipated that, with residential growth taking off in the past few years — particularly in the 1,700-home Sterling on the Lake subdivision — the city’s population would reach 9,000 residents by 2010.

"Of course, we were anticipating that when the economy was up," Hirling said.

A slow economy may have created a lag in the city’s growth, but in the mean time, Flowery Branch officials are taking advantage of the economy, preparing sewer and public safety forces for the growth they expect will still continue.

"... We’re appreciative right now of the slow economy only because we have some chance now to work on our infrastructure."

Dawsonville officials may have seen the largest growth in population between 2000 and 2007, and the bureau estimates the city’s population has grown by nearly 130 percent since the last census.

Dawsonville officials did not return messages left by The Times on Thursday, but Danny Lewis, executive director of the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Center, said he was not surprised by the estimated population explosion in Dawsonville.

"Dawsonville has done a major annexation program and that’s probably helped them," Lewis said. "We’re seeing a lot of what I call ‘half-backs,’ folks who moved to Florida and got scared by all the hurricanes in one year. They didn’t want to go back up North, but wanted to go where there are four seasons."

Jefferson and most incorporated cities in Hall County have also experienced significant growth.

And for the first time, Jefferson is recognized as the largest city in Jackson County with an estimated population of 7,513. Jefferson’s estimated population supersedes Commerce — the city that once reigned as the county’s largest — by about 1,500.

Most of Jefferson’s growth is attributed to the development of property already inside the city limits, City Manager John Ward said. The majority of the city’s recent annexations have been for commercial or industrial, not residential, purposes, but residential growth is apparent in the increased use of city services.

"We have experienced explosive growth within both of our school systems and in our demand for quality of life services, like libraries and parks and recreation," Ward said.

Jefferson officials are preparing themselves for even more growth, expanding sewage treatment capabilities and preparing permits for its second fresh drinking water reservoir. The Jefferson City Council is also pressing forward with an economic development road program to cope with more traffic, and a downtown streetscape program in hopes to lure more businesses to the city.

Yet, some Forsyth County officials are not as eager to expand as other cities’ officials may seem.

Forsyth County Commissioner Linda Ledbetter said she is surprised and dismayed at Cumming’s rapid population increase, which the Census Bureau estimates rose more than 38 percent between 2000 and 2007.

Ledbetter said she would have loved to slow the city’s growth 20 years ago, but trying to halt it now would have consequences on the city’s economy.

"My quality of life has definitely been changed by people moving in here," she said. "I think if we could look back, we’d see that county commissions years ago would never let this happen.

"We liked (Cumming) as a small little town with very little here, but those days are gone."

Cumming City Administrator Gerald Blackburn offered a different view, likening the expanding growth to a "two-sided coin."

"Without money, you certainly can’t improve and add to your infrastructure like you need to," he said. "But with the growth that money is created ... and it helps you to keep up with it."

Blackburn said Cumming officials have been able to stay ahead of the curve, paying attention to infrastructure such as water, wastewater treatment and road improvements.

"And as long as we can do that, that’ll work," he said.

But Ledbetter, a lifelong resident of Cumming, said she has always opposed growth in Forsyth County, but it’s a little too late to reverse it.

"Change is like a galloping horse," she said. "You either get on board or watch it pass by."

Staff writers Jeff Gill and Harris Blackwood contributed to this report. Times regional writers
Nikki Young, Julie Arrington
and Jennifer Sami also contributed.



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