Census says fast-growing Salt Lake City passes the 200,000 resident mark — but local officials say that’s probably premature

For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau says Salt Lake City’s population exceeded 200,000.

But local demographers say the 2017 mark is probably bogus, along with related data showing the city is adding more residents than any other place in the state and ranked a lofty 34th highest nationally among cities for increasing population.

The problem is the estimates are based on building permits. And developers rushing to beat the end of a city freeze on charging growth impact fees often acquired building permits in late 2016 without actually constructing the apartments or homes yet.

“We think the growth is going to be there. It’s just not necessarily built yet,” said Mallory Bateman, state data coordinator at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

That was perhaps the most interesting twist in population data about cities released Thursday by the Census. Among other findings, Vineyard — on the site of the old Geneva steel plant in Utah County — was the fastest-growing city in the nation (by percentage) for those with populations of more than 1,000, growing at nearly 50 percent.

Also, cities in northern Utah County and southern Salt Lake County continue to be the center of the state’s most rapid growth. But some Salt Lake County cities, including West Valley City, Sandy, Taylorsville and Cottonwood Heights, showed surprising population decreases — but local demographers say that is likely inaccurate, too.

But, again, Bateman said that was inflated by developers obtaining yet-to-be-used building permits to beat an increase in fees. She said her institute does work beyond that performed by the Census — such as studying aerial imagery and looking at parcels — “to make sure that buildings actually have been built.”

Many were not. So her institute figures Salt Lake City actually added only 2,548 people between 2016 and 2017 — less than half of the Census estimates.

Still, Mayor Jackie Biskupski said Salt Lake City is “pretty close” to the 200,000 population figure now. While building permits were acquired early for many large apartment and condominium projects, “most are underway now,” she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction at the former Granite Furniture in Sugar House continues at a quick pace as the new Sugarmont Apartments takes shape on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. New Census data shows that Salt Lake City has surpassed 200,000 residents, and again is the state’s fastest-growing city by numbers. It added 5,891 residents between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017.

She says her city has become a hot destination attracting many new projects and residents “who want to live close to where they work. We’re trying to get people out of their cars to live here instead of commute here.”

Biskupski said it “reverses the trend” that between 1960 and 1990 had seen the city lose tens of thousands of residents, who moved to the suburbs. After the city’s population bottomed out below 160,000 in 1990, the population started to grow again and accelerated during the past decade.

“We’re especially attracting young people who want to live where they work” and are drawn by the glitzy activities of a large city, Biskupski said. “Stories nationwide say we are one of the most livable cities in America, and that attracts people.”

She said the city is working hard to attract more affordable housing, and that often is townhomes or condominiums. She noted the city recently approved a tax hike for the transit, roads and other facilities needed to keep up with more rapid growth.

While Vineyard was the nation’s fastest-growing city as of last July, officials there say its growth has hit the accelerator even more since then.

“Our number is just over 13,000 now,” says City Administrator Jacob McHargue. “We’re adding about 500 people a month.”

Vineyard achieved a three-peat — being the state’s fastest-growing city for three years in a row. McHargue doesn’t see that stopping anytime soon. He said the city figures its population will exceed 20,000 in the next three to five years “or sooner” and eventually will peak out in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 residents.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The development at the site of the old Geneva steel mill in the town of Vineyard continues to grow under the name of @Geneva as seen on Wed. May 18, 2016.

The reason? McHargue says people are flocking there because it is the only area in the middle of Utah County with significant open space. Until a few years ago, the old Geneva Steel plant was on much of it, surrounded by farmland.

“It’s not often that you have an entire area that gets to develop at the same time,” McHargue said. “People are excited to move here because it’s an entirely new place. It’s a clean slate. Everyone is in a new home.”

He said everywhere in town is within five minutes of Utah Lake. “We have a bunch of parks coming online this year.” And projects to improve freeway access and a new FrontRunner station are proceeding.

Northern Utah County and southern Salt Lake County for the past decade have been the center of the state’s fastest growth, “and it looks like they are going to keep going,” Bateman said.

For example, the second through fifth-fastest growing cities in the state by percentage are there: Bluffdale saw 14.9 percent growth, up to 13,484 residents; Herriman was up 11.6 percent to 39,224; Eagle Mountain increased 11.2 percent to 32,204; and Saratoga Springs was up 11 percent to 29,608.

South Jordan added 2,275 residents (No. 6 in the state by numeric increase) to 70,954, and Lehi added 1,969 to 62,712.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Houses at Daybreak are clustered around open spaces of grass and gardens.

“One of the biggest reasons is available land,” said Tami Moody, spokeswoman for Herriman. The areas were farmland, so large tracts are available “so people can afford a single-family home here.”

In contrast, Bateman said most development in Salt Lake City, for example, are “in-fill” with apartments or other multifamily housing replacing old commercial areas.

Most of his community is also in Cedar Valley or the saddle between it and Utah Valley. “The weather here really is different. There’s not as much pollution. It’s beautiful,” and it offers motorcycle, ATV and horse trails for recreation.

Also, the “Silicon Slopes” tech corridor is in the middle of the new-growth area, so it provides jobs with a shorter commute. State officials are planning to redevelop the current state prison site there. And several cities there say they are attracting more businesses, too.

The Census estimates that 206 of Utah’s 247 cities and towns increased population, one stayed the same (Goshen in Utah County) and 40 lost population.

Some of those decreases are not surprising. Most are in rural areas that long have seen declines as young people move away for job opportunities, and some of the bigger drops came in the Uinta Basin where the oil industry went bust.

But some decreases were surprising, including in Utah’s second-largest city, West Valley City. The Census said it lost 676 residents, the most of any in the state, or 0.5 percent of its overall population of 136,170.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune With 30 minutes left to vote, there are still long lines outside the West Valley City Hall, Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

Others in Salt Lake County also lost population. The Census estimated that Taylorsville lost 460 residents, down 0.8 percent; Cottonwood Heights lost 236, down 0.7 percent; Millcreek lost 224, down 0.4 percent; Sandy lost 210, down 0.2 percent; and Holladay lost 129, or 0.4 percent.

She adds the losses in the Salt Lake County cities do not match data collected by her institute, which estimates that West Valley City, Sandy, Taylorsville and Cottonwood Heights increased in population.

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