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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Growth strong in area towns

Southern New Hampshire is no longer seeing the kind of explosive population growth that marked the 1960s through the 1990s, this week’s 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

But certain pockets of the Nashua region are bucking that trend.

Bedford’s population grew 16 percent from 2000 to 2010, while Brookline saw a 19 percent increase and Windham grew a whopping 27 percent.

Mont Vernon saw 18 percent growth, Litchfield grew 12 percent and Milford grew by 11 percent.

Even experts are at a loss to explain why some towns saw such big population increases while the populations in nearby communities remained flat or lost ground.

“I have to confess ignorance on Derry,” said Tom Duffy, a demographic consultant for the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

Derry, once among the fastest-growing southern New Hampshire communities, lost 2.7 percent of its population over the past decade.

New Hampshire’s total population grew 6.5 percent from 2000 to 2010 – a far slower rate of growth than in the previous four decades and one that lagged behind the national increase of 9.7 percent.

As of 2010, the state had 1.32 million residents, up from 1.24 million in 2000.

Hillsborough County increased by slightly more than 5 percent to 400,000 residents.

Manchester, the state’s largest city, had 110,000 residents, an increase of 2.4 percent from the 2000 census, while Nashua, the second-largest city, had 86,500, an ever-so-slight decline of one-tenth of a percent.

Duffy does have a theory to explain that difference.

“It’s probably a difference of housing styles. Manchester, area-wise, is a small place. They’ve accommodated growth by growing vertically,” he said.

The census data showed significant change in the list of the top 10 largest communities. Portsmouth, Keene and Laconia once graced the list, but they’ve been replaced by Londonderry, Hudson and Merrimack, according to an Office of Energy and Planning analysis of census data.

Duffy attributed growth in Hudson (6.7 percent) and Merrimack (1.5 percent) to “spill-off” from Nashua, where little land is left for new development.

The Office of Energy and Planning analysis also noted that, in 1980, the top 20 most populous municipalities in New Hampshire accounted for 50 percent of the state’s population. By 2010, it took 24 municipalities to reach that number, which could indicate that people moving to New Hampshire increasingly prefer to live in smaller, more rural communities.

Bedford Town Administrator Russ Marcoux attributed his town’s growth to economic stability and quality of life.

“It’s a beautiful suburban community,” he said. “It’s a nice place to live, work and play and to raise a family.”

Unlike other cities and towns, Bedford saw residential and commercial development continue throughout the economic downturn, according to Marcoux.

Laura Scott said much the same about Windham, where she works as the town’s community development director.

Development “hasn’t stopped,” she said. “We’re not booming like we were a couple years ago, but we are at a steady level of growth.”

The small-town feel, combined with perks like proximity to Interstate 93, make Windham a desirable place to live, she said.

Bedford and Windham have one other thing in common: Both built their high schools late in the last decade, breaking off from larger, more urban school systems.

That could explain an influx of families.

Town-by-town fluctuations in population growth in southern New Hampshire could also have been influenced by land-use ordinances that some towns adopted to limit growth.

Before state law made it illegal, towns like Hudson instituted a cap on the number of building permits issued annually in an effort to control decades of explosive growth.

John Cashell, Hudson’s town planner, said that until 2007, the town set an annual cap that was equal to the average number of housing units built in surrounding communities.

Towns like Windham, however, that weren’t growing as rapidly during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s never instituted such ordinances.

“I don’t feel there should be some arbitrary cap,” Scott said. “The community development department looks at new development as an opportunity, not a threat.”

Betty Hall, a longtime Brookline resident and former member of the Conservation Commission, attributes Brookline’s 19 percent growth over the past decade to the large amount of open land.

Neighboring Hollis saw smaller growth of 10 percent because much of the land has been set aside as permanent open space and will never be developed.

“They have a lot more controls on their development. They have a huge amount of conservation land, and they started their conservation program way early,” she said. “We are playing catch up.”

Ashley Smith can be reached at 594-6446 or asmith@nashuatelegraph.com.