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Census data show Chester County’s hot, South Jersey’s not. Here’s how towns are changing

The data show a sustained slow decline in South Jersey, ongoing population spikes in swaths of Chester and Montgomery Counties, and stability in Bucks and Delaware Counties.

Just a few miles apart, Upper Providence (Montgomery County, left) and Phoenixville (Chester County, right) have both grown in population. But different families are moving in. New homes in Upper Providence are larger, surrounded by more space; younger families are moving into denser, smaller homes in Phoenixville.
Just a few miles apart, Upper Providence (Montgomery County, left) and Phoenixville (Chester County, right) have both grown in population. But different families are moving in. New homes in Upper Providence are larger, surrounded by more space; younger families are moving into denser, smaller homes in Phoenixville.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Demographic shifts, including an aging population that has ever-increasing numbers of baby boomers retiring and millennials entering the workforce and raising families, continue to change the makeup of the region, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.

The data, released May 24 and including town and city projections, show a sustained slow decline in South Jersey, ongoing population spikes in swaths of Chester and Montgomery Counties, and stability in Bucks and Delaware Counties.

"It's almost like a tale of two different age groups: Younger generations trying to move closer to cities, especially cities like Philadelphia where there's thriving growth … and then you have an older generation of residents who are making a strategic decision based on property taxes, wanting to move to an area like Bucks County where you have lower property taxes but still good amenities," said Michael Hayes, a public policy professor at Rutgers-Camden.

Young people want cities, with the jobs and lifestyle that come with them.

As they grow older and start families, they want denser suburbs with walkable downtowns and other amenities — places such as Downingtown, Chester County, or Collingswood, Camden County.

Older families, especially more affluent ones, are drawn to the larger homes popping up in developments farther from the city, in suburbs such as Upper Providence Township, Montgomery County, and East Brandywine Township, Chester County.

Retirement can be the time to reevaluate whether you're getting your money's worth from those taxes. For people in South Jersey, especially, the answer often turns out to be no. Goodbye, Medford Lakes in Burlington County and Paulsboro in Gloucester County. Hello, Florida and South Carolina.

"We've never had a huge generation leave the workforce and retire as the baby boomers are, and we've never had an entry-level generation as large" entering at the same time, said James W. Hughes, a professor at Rutgers University's Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. "And what we see virtually across industries, across everything: two new demographic groups, one ascending, one descending."

A growth spurt to the west: Chester and Montgomery Counties

Chester County's population is growing the fastest, with an increase of 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2017.

The county has a relatively young population — with far more births than deaths per year — and is attracting international migration, said Ben Gruswitz, a senior planner with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

The municipalities seeing the most growth include East Brandywine and West Vincent Township in Chester County and some of the traditionally less-dense areas in Montgomery County,  including Upper Hanover, Salford, and Upper Providence Townships.

"It's probably cheaper to build and there's space to do it," Gruswitz said of those areas. "It becomes a more obvious choice for developers to look for subdivisions that they could put in when it's just greenfield development."

East Brandywine's township manager, Scott Piersol, can affirm that. He said the growth in his township — better than 25 percent in seven years — is likely to continue with three new developments.

Ed Gomez, a Chester County real estate agent with Coldwell Banker, said families like the "outlying areas" so they can "spread their wings a little bit."

Communities such as West Chester and Phoenixville, which boast walkable downtowns, are also growing. And they're popular with young professionals and people with adult children, Gomez said.

"They want to be with the restaurants, they want to be with things to do that are close by," he said. "They like that village atmosphere."

>> READ MORE: With a food and booze revolution, Phoenixville rises again

Slow shrinkage in South Jersey: Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties

You will not be shocked to hear that taxes are still high in New Jersey, where residents have long complained about the cost of living.

What is changing, demographers said, is the character of the population: It's aging, and people once willing to pay the high taxes feel differently as their life stage changes. Baby boomers whose kids aren't in the schools anymore see less benefit from their taxes; as they retire from work, the equation shifts even more.

The oldest boomers turn 72 this year, said Hughes, the Rutgers-New Brunswick professor. And in the United States, where the median age for retirement is 63, half of all boomers will be 63 or older by the end of the year. Many of those in New Jersey will find themselves contributing to what has been a slow, steady population decline.

"In many cases, New Jersey is much too expensive for them," he said. "Some will move to Florida, some will try to stay in the area just because of family ties — their grandchildren and the like — but they may find the Pennsylvania side of the river a little more attractive due to lower taxes and the like."

Medford Lakes Borough Manager Robert Burton blamed the town's 3.2 percent population drop on "the sheer fact that New Jersey property taxes are ridiculous."

Hughes and others said New Jersey also suffers from issues on the other end: Many towns in South Jersey lack the amenities, starter homes, and other benefits that millennials are seeking. Young adults starting families want different kinds of suburbs from older adults; why pay the New Jersey property taxes when some suburbs in Pennsylvania have similar amenities for less?

"These problems have been in place for a while — these policies were enacted decades ago — but what's exacerbating them today, making them come to the fore, is the aging population," said Kevin C. Gillen, an urban economist at Drexel University. "People are leaving and dying off."

Of the 15 Philadelphia-area towns that have grown by more than 10 percent since 2010, only one was in South Jersey: Woolwich at 21 percent. Meanwhile, 23 of the 26 towns that experienced population loss of at least 2 percent over that time period were in South Jersey, and half were in Burlington County.

A mixed bag and overall plateau: Bucks and Delaware Counties

Bucks County's population has been relatively stable — and some municipalities have lost some people, including Bristol Borough and Warminster Township in Lower Bucks.

Overall, the county's population grew slightly, with central and upper Bucks County growing more than lower Bucks.

"It's become like almost an outer suburb of New York," said Gillen. Million-dollar home purchases have become common in Bucks.

Delaware County's population also remained stable, with growth of just 1 percent since 2010. Much of the county is already built out. Newtown Township, an outlier, grew by 9.6 percent —  but most municipalities saw modest growth.

Michael Roedig, a senior planner with the Bucks County Planning Commission, said the county has seen "historically lower levels of residential development" in the last decade, in part because many towns are already developed.

Plumstead, with its copious green space, is an exception. The Bucks County town experienced the biggest seven-year population bump, with 500 to 600 new homes in subdivisions that had been put on hold during the recession, said Township Manager Carolyn McGrory.

An uncertain future

Population changes vary from town to town, but an important factor — particularly in South Jersey — is who is leaving, said Gillen.

"You're not just losing population, you're losing the wealthy part of the population," he said. "You lose that revenue, and then the quality of the public services falls, and that further reduces the incentives for people to move there and to stay there."

Those towns that do grow, such as the ones booming in Pennsylvania, can benefit from an economic cycle that springs up, he and others said. Why should we care about population change and who is moving where?

"The answer to that is cause and effect: the economy," said Kim Goyette, the chair of Temple University's sociology department. "You want that group of young adults that will attract employment and who will further grow employment and service industry in your area."

And no one knows how long the current cycles will last.

"The trend keeps going until it doesn't anymore," Hughes said. "We have yet to find a trend that will last forever."

Staff writer Meghan Bobrowsky contributed to this article.