Image: Man walks on roof under construction.
Laura Rauch  /  AP file
Construction worker Juan Jose Santana walks on the roof of a new home being built in Las Vegas, last April. Nevada again tops the list of fastest-growing states, followed by Arizona and Florida, according to The Census Bureau's annual estimate of the nation's population.
updated 12/22/2004 7:11:54 AM ET 2004-12-22T12:11:54

For all its rapid growth, Idaho is still primarily a small-town state with small-town infrastructure.

That may make its fourth-place ranking on the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of fastest-growing states a bit surprising, but it’s no shock to town and county planners. They’re scrambling to update comprehensive plans and fix zoning ordinances.

“Trying to keep up with the influx is a bit like drinking water out of a firehose,” said Rand Wichman, planning and zoning director for Kootenai County in Idaho’s fast-growing panhandle.

The Census Bureau’s annual population estimates showed the United States added another 3 million people in the last year for an overall population of just under 294 million.

The fastest growth came in the West and South, with states such as Nevada, Idaho, Utah and New Mexico leading the way as urbanites moved to rural areas, looking for room to spread out. The states have at least three things in common: affordable living, lots of outdoor recreation and plenty of space.

Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, said the rural states are appealing to people who want to escape the urban sprawl of big cities like Los Angeles and Denver.

“This is part of a long diffusion of population of the country because of the interstates, airports and the Internet,” Lang said. “We use the whole country now.”

Fern Bull, 74, moved from Colorado to Layton, Utah, about 25 miles north of Salt Lake City, to be near her two young granddaughters. In the five years since arriving, a Wal-Mart, a small shopping mall and two new fast-food restaurants have been built on once-empty parcels of land near her home, she said.

Adding infrastructure a challenge
Utah’s population is 2.4 million, up 1.6 percent over the past year and up 7 percent since 2000. Bull, who is involved in a social group that welcomes new residents, said local officials are trying to keep infrastructure on a pace with the influx.

“We’re just trying to get highways and transportation,” she said. “As more people keep moving in, we need more.”

Nevada, spurred in large part by the sprawling growth around Las Vegas, grew by 4.1 percent to 2.3 million people.

Retired utility worker Lloyd Wicliff, 58, moved from the Los Angeles area to North Las Vegas last year. “Your money goes a little further here,” he said. “A nice house in Southern California can be a nicer home in southern Nevada.”

Arizona had the second-largest growth, up 3 percent to 5.7 million, while Florida was third with a 2.3 percent increase to 17.4 million. Georgia, Texas, Delaware and North Carolina also were in the top 10.

Massachusetts was the only state that had a population decline — albeit down a slight 3,800 people, or 0.1 percent, to 6.41 million. Demographers speculated it could have been caused by an exodus of people leaving to escape rising costs in the Boston area.

The bureau estimated North Dakota gained population for the first time since at least 2000. The July 2004 population of 634,366 was 966 higher than the previous year.

There also has been small but steady growth in Montana and Wyoming, probably due in part to folks’ seeking to leave urban settings for a small-town lifestyle, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Put yourself in someone’s shoes living in Los Angeles,” said Marty Bakken, a 30-year veteran of the fast-growing real estate market around Bozeman, Mont. “If they can make a living and provide for their family here, they’re probably going to do it.”

Also, Frey said, with low housing prices and warm climates, don’t expect the popularity of Arizona or Nevada to wane soon.

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