Not too long ago, Carroll County faced a problem: Rapid growth had brought crowded classrooms to the northeastern part of the county, and planners expected many more homes to be built in the area.
"At one point, they were 400 kids over capacity at North Carroll High," said Bill Caine, facilities planner for the school system. It seemed inevitable that a new high school would be filled within a few years, so the county decided to build Manchester Valley High, which could accommodate 1,300 students -- at a cost of $80 million.
Today, though, Manchester Valley is operating at about 60 percent of capacity, and North Carroll has nearly as many openings, the result of big changes in the Baltimore area's population growth patterns.
In recent years, the rapid pace of growth in Carroll and Harford counties -- once the most robust in the region -- has slowed. In fact, recent census estimates show that Carroll's population declined from mid-2011 to mid-2012, a rare occurrence, even as more urban counties such as Baltimore and Anne Arundel -- as well as the city of Baltimore -- grew. The new estimates mirror trends that have played out since the recession began.
Experts attribute those trends to several factors. Two large generations, the baby boomers and the millennials, had already developed urban-centric perceptions of what they want in a home. The recession's legacy, including stagnant wages and rising building costs, fueled their growing interest in urban areas.
"What you're seeing is a number of factors in play, and they're all playing in the same direction -- they're bringing people closer," said John K. McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that studies land use and real estate development.
Three-fourths of Maryland's jurisdictions, including smaller, outlying counties such as Carroll and Harford, have yet to return to pre-recession levels of population growth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Four of the six jurisdictions that have bounced back -- Baltimore City, plus Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- are in metropolitan Baltimore.
More people like him
In Baltimore County, the largest locality in the region, much of the recent population growth has come from immigrants. Hernan Diaz Sr., who owns Genesis Grocery in Dundalk, has noticed a change in his community in the past few years. There are more people like him -- immigrants from Latin America.
There are now four Spanish-speaking churches nearby. He regularly sees youths playing soccer in the local parks. And, most importantly for him, business has improved at his North Dundalk Avenue store, which is filled with items popular in Central and South America: salted prawns and dried mackerel, chocolate-covered marshmallow pops, and alborotos, sweet popcorn balls.
"The first three years, man, it was terrible," Diaz said of business at his shop, which he opened in 2007 after operating in Baltimore. "But the last three years, we've been having more and more customers."
Diaz and his family were pioneers of the recent movement of Latin American immigrants to southeastern Baltimore County. They moved in 2000 from the Highlandtown area and have been followed by many families, including some who also first settled within Baltimore's city limits.
"I was waiting for an opportunity to open a store here," Diaz said. "I saw this was a nice area."
Baltimore County gained more than 5,000 residents between mid-2011 and mid-2012, more people than the Census Bureau figured the county gained from 2005 to 2006, the year before the recession struck. Three-fifths of the growth last year was from international migration, the Census Bureau said; the rest was mainly from births.
"The way Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees the Latino population, I see the population as a boon for Dundalk," said Amy Menzer, executive director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., a community development organization.
Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore's mayor, has instituted policies to welcome immigrants to the city as part of her goal to increase the population by 10,000 families in a decade. Immigrants are the main driver of the city's population stabilization in recent years and, according to City Hall, will go a long way toward boosting the city's tax base.
Baltimore County hasn't always been a destination for Latin American immigrants. Ten years ago, the county drew most of its new residents from moves within the U.S. But the balance has shifted, partly because people who bought homes during the housing bubble are hard-pressed to move.
"The recession has kept people in their houses," said Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Many people who bought houses during the bubble years of the early 2000s rapidly lost equity after the bust, freezing them into their homes, he said. People in "underwater" properties -- those with mortgages that cost more than the home's value -- hesitated to move up to larger properties, which are often in suburbs, Pendall said.
That issue resonates in Carroll and Harford counties, which grew rapidly in the early part of the last decade, filling with move-up buyers who wanted more space.
Harford is now well below its pre-recession rate of population growth but still managed to gain 2,000 people between July 2011 and July 2012 -- largely because of births and domestic migration, according to the Census Bureau.
The growth in Harford is primarily due to expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground, said Marianne Ferguson, vice president of the local office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. Although the Army base has not pulled in as many new residents to the county as expected, growth remains solid, she said.
In the Baltimore region, Carroll has had the steepest decline in its growth rate over the last decade. From mid-2005 to mid-2006, Carroll grew by about 1,500 people. From mid-2011 to mid-2012, the county lost about 100 people, census estimates show.
It was an unexpected shift for Carroll.
Amid the era of rapid growth, the county added 28,000 residents between 1990 and 2000, putting pressure on schools such as North Carroll High. And in the early 2000s, as officials considered building a new high school, new-home construction was at an all-time high, said Caine, the county's school facilities planner.
The county commissioners "didn't foresee a future when we weren't growing like that," Caine said. They decided a new high school was needed to alleviate the overflowing North Carroll High in Hampstead, and allocated the money to build Manchester Valley High in Manchester, he said.
But as home prices rise, it appears that Carroll could start growing again. In the past year, there's been increasing interest in homes near the border with Howard County, real estate agents say.
Buyers seem to be returning for homes in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, said Brett Heishman, owner of Senate Homes, which has new homes for sale near Sykesville and Eldersburg, in the southern portion of the county.
"Right around the $500,000-plus [range], I don't really see a lot of sales activity," he said.
Still, it's not clear whether people will move to areas without town centers at the same pace they did before the recession.
Commutes and culture
Baby boomers are tired of commuting and want to have easier access to events and cultural activities, said McIlwain, the Urban Land Institute fellow. Likewise, he said, younger people now more often believe that "you buy a home not just to live in it; you buy a home to live out of it."
There's "a sense that the real amenity is not the size of the house but the quality of the community," he said.
Bill Toohey and Rosemary Frisino Toohey, both in their 60s, moved three years ago from their four-bedroom home in Baltimore County's Stoneleigh neighborhood to be in a more urban environment. They live in a compact rowhouse on O'Donnell Street in Canton, said Bill Toohey, communications director for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
"This is a very suitable place for us," he said, noting that they can walk to the waterfront and to the library, and it's still easy to get to his office in Towson. His wife, a playwright, has better access to Baltimore's cultural offerings, too.
"I suspect we're going to see a lot more mature individuals" in Canton in the coming years, Toohey said.
Beyond the preference for community and easy access to amenities, there are new economic realities to cope with, McIlwain said.
Wages have been stagnant, but the cost to build a residence has gone up, making homes less affordable, he said.
"Rural areas have not seen job growth, and [young adults] know that -- they want a future," McIlwain said.
Although experts debate how much gas prices have affected people's willingness to live far from their work -- Pendall believes the cost is not yet high enough to affect such long-term decisions -- there seems to be a consensus that the price of buying and maintaining a car has become unappealing to many. And as traffic worsens, people are finding it more desirable to live close to the office.
"Once you decide you don't want a car, your landscape of housing choice is going to be decidedly different," Pendall said.
Inner suburbs bounce back
All of these factors played into the ability of Baltimore's inner suburbs -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties -- to easily return to their pre-recession levels of growth, according to the population experts.
From mid-2011 to mid-2012, Anne Arundel's growth was more than three times what it was in 2005-2006, according to the Census Bureau. Howard County's growth rate is also higher than it was before the recession. Each county gained an estimated 5,500 people in the recent period measured by the census.
"The reason we've done well compared to other jurisdictions is location and quality of life," said Tom Carbo, the director of Howard County's housing agency.
Howard has fairly stringent regulations that prevent growth from exploding, he said, but growth continued throughout the recession because of the county's reputation for good schools, parks and residents' health.
Anne Arundel's population boom has been fueled by growth at Fort Meade, the military base in the western part of the county.
Staff Sgt. Hector Peralta, who moved with his young family to the county in 2010 from Washington state, said his neighborhood off Arundel Mills Boulevard is filled with members of the military who wanted to be close to work and amenities.
It only takes 15 minutes to drive to the base, and the area is less expensive than across the border in Howard County, he said. Schools in Anne Arundel are crowded, though, he said.
Anne Arundel has been scrambling to provide facilities that can handle rising enrollment, said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the school system. Since the 2007-2008 school year, the system has gained 4,400 students -- for a total of nearly 78,000, he said.
"The vast majority of our growth has been in West County," Mosier said.
When Nantucket Elementary School, 10 miles southeast of Fort Meade, opened in 2008, it was over capacity by 12 students, he said.
Now it's over capacity by 130 children and has five portable classrooms.
Although some inner suburban counties, like Montgomery, seem to be loosening their hold on residents as the economy improves, that doesn't appear to be happening yet in metropolitan Baltimore, said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Diaz believes that many Latin American immigrants in Dundalk are there for the long haul.
They've purchased homes, and the area has everything they need, he said.
He also predicts that the immigrant influx will continue. "When one family moves to one area, you know a lot more are coming."