LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett isn't filling up as fast as officials once thought it was. Instead of reaching 1 million people by 2018, officials now believe the county will hit the mark closer to 2030.
As part of a required update to the county's comprehensive plan, officials are lowering projections for the suburban Atlanta county - once one of the fastest growing in the nation.
"It's bad news in some ways because people add to the economy; it may be considered good news because it's one less automobile on the road," Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said.
While officials had estimated the population would be 842,742 people in 2010, the new estimate predicts 795,444, and for the year 2030, the forecast has been reduced from 1,173,713 to 1,009,690.
"I hope it's not an indication that Gwinnett is becoming a less desirable place to live," said Chuck Warbington, a member of the Planning Commission and director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District. "I think overall it's going to allow the infrastructure to catch up, so that's good news."
According to the latest population estimates from the Atlanta Regional Commission, Gwinnett, Georgia's second largest county, has a population of 719,600.
The county has led the region in growth since the 1980s, but last year was the first time in 15 years another metro Atlanta locale topped Gwinnett in its annual increase, with Fulton County gaining about 400 more new residents than Gwinnett.
The numbers were revealed publicly for the first time during a presentation Tuesday to commissioners on the county's economic outlook. The downturn won't impact the 2007 tax digest, but could have consequences for the 2008 revenues, economist Alfie Meek said.
Bannister, who campaigned in 2004 on slowing the county's growth, said he believes the trend will be well-received by residents yearning to maintain the suburban spirit of Gwinnett, as well as looking to escape traffic and maintain greenspace.
But the county chairman couldn't take all of the credit for the situation, instead pointing to national trends in foreclosures and a downturn in the homebuilding industry as factors.
Planning Director Steve Logan said the new numbers come from consultants using "more sophisticated" forecasting models for the comprehensive plan, which considers land use, infrastructure and services for 2030. But Meek said evidence of the slow-down is already under way.
In 2006, the number of single-family building permits dropped 20.6 percent, with most of the decrease coming in the last four months of the year, he said.
While the number of residential housing permits is decreasing, the number of commercial developments is going up, helping the county produce a more balanced tax digest, Meek said.
Logan said Gwinnett is beginning to be bypassed by newcomers, with outlying counties such as Forsyth getting some of the residents that forecasters had predicted to come to Gwinnett.
"Some of the growth is going farther out," he said. "We expected it to be here, but property values have gone up."
For years, Gwinnett's population projections have been disputed by demographers with the Atlanta Regional Commission, who say the county is growing at a slower rate that locals believe.
Mike Alexander, the director of the ARC's research division, said many core counties are experiencing slowdowns based on housing permits, while outlying areas are seeing a boom.
"You can clearly see that growth has pushed on out," he said, adding that Gwinnett's development focus will soon shift from virgin land to redeveloping older areas.
"It's anybody's guess, but it definitely looks like it's going to slow down," he said. "But that's one year. This may be a one-year down-turn. It's too early to tell."
Logan said the shift in his numbers does not indicate that the ARC numbers were correct. In fact, that body shifted its projections up to correlate closer to the county's figures.
According to the most recent statistics, the ARC estimate for Gwinnett in 2030 is 986,694, while the county's new projection is 1,009,690. The past estimate had been 1,173,713.
"Our numbers are now much closer to ARC's numbers. We are meeting in the middle," Logan said. "Who knows? Neither one of us has a good crystal ball."