If you thought there were a few extra vehicles on the road in Tooele County last year, along with a few extra students in school, a few extra new homes, and you had to spend a few extra minutes waiting in line to buy groceries, there is a reason for it.
We grew a lot in 2017.
As reported in last Tuesday’s edition, Tooele County’s population grew by nearly 3,000 new residents last year, making it the 7th fastest growing county in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Specifically, all those new residents pushed the county’s population from 64,599 in 2016 to 67,456. The jump represents a growth rate of 4.4 percent.
But Tooele County wasn’t the only one from Utah that made it on the Census Bureau’s Top-10 list of fastest growing counties in 2017. Wasatch County placed third on the list with 5-percent growth, while Morgan County placed eighth, also at 4.4 percent. Taking the top spot on the census bureau’s list was the county equivalent of Falls Church, Virginia, at 5.2 percent.
To help give a sense of scale to Tooele County’s 7th place ranking, there are 3,141 counties in the nation’s 50 states and the District of Columbia.
And where is Tooele County’s growth coming from? According to Pam Perlich, director of demographic research for the Kem Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, most of it is new people moving in. The county did see 659 new residents from natural increase (the difference between births and deaths), but the biggest growth factor, according to Census Bureau data, was a net migration of 2,193.
“What we are seeing is the expansion of the urban area of the Wasatch Front into a larger geographic region with the growth of the ring counties,” Perlich said.
That answers the where, but what about the why? According to Perlich, the county’s quality of life and lower housing costs are the reasons, which also were behind the county’s big growth spurt of 1990 through 2000 that saw annual growth rates reach nearly 5 percent, and average over 3 percent from 2000 to 2010.
But there is another big reason that local residents know well: except for periods of heavy commuter traffic, or delays caused by accidents, the county’s Tooele Valley offers quick access to the Wasatch Front for jobs and metropolitan amenities.
That fact is clearly understood by Chris Sloan, who is broker for Group 1 Real Estate Tooele — and also vice chairman of the Tooele City Planning Commission.
“We’re close enough to the big city that people can take advantage of what it has to offer, but far enough away that we still have a bit of that rural feel, and homes here are $50,000 to $60,000 less than the same home along the Wasatch Front,” he said.
All that growth is exciting; it’s gratifying to see Tooele County become a coveted place in which to live after years of stigma related to military and hazardous waste disposal operations. It is hoped that growth will result in greater economic development and more local, higher-paying jobs to keep more residents working in county instead of commuting east every day for a paycheck.
But all that growth comes with a price. As Tooele Valley fills with residential and commercial development, and roads and infrastructure become strained and require expansion, the valley’s verdant and appealing rural feel may quickly give way to urban sprawl.
And that would be a regrettable and irreversible tragedy.
Unless the nation’s and Utah’s economy takes a hit, Tooele County may continue to see a high rate of population growth for years to come. If the current rate of growth continues, the county could near 100,000 residents in a decade or less.
For local county and city leaders, there is significant difficulty when it comes to striking a balance between growth that results in healthy economic outcomes, and keeping the county’s rural feel and desirable quality of life. Land-use planning and decisions, based on intelligent and visionary stewardship, won’t come easily. All leaders, and citizens, too, are urged to never take their eye off the ball on this one.