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Growth slowing
Population expansion drops below 3 percent

COVINGTON - Newton County was the 11th-fastest growing county in the nation from 2000 to 2008, but it didn't break the top 100 for growth from 2007 to 2008, according to data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

From the April 1, 2000, census to July 1, 2008, the county's population grew from 62,001 to 98,542. That represents an increase of 36,541 people, or 58.9 percent.

But statistics from July 1, 2007, to July 1, 2008, show the county's growth is slowing. During that period, the county's population increased from 95,723 to 98,542, an increase of 2,819 people and a growth rate of 2.9 percent, the Bureau reported.

Newton County just missed making the top 100 list for fastest growing counties in that year, or those that demonstrated a growth rate of at least 3 percent, according to a Census Bureau spokesman.

Those who keep track of permit statistics and who work in the home building industry say Newton County's growth hasn't just slowed - It's pretty much stopped.

The Newton County Planning and Development Department reported a drastic decline in new residential building permits issued in the last few years. The numbers fall off like a ski jump: For the 2006 calendar year, 1,532 permits were issued. In 2007, that dropped to 812. By 2008, permits were down to 152.

With less than three months gone in the calendar year, Planning Director Marian Eisenberg gave numbers her department has to-date for the fiscal year, which began July 1, 2008. Since then, the department has issued just 72 new residential permits.

None were issued during the month of December, only two were issued in January and five in February, Eisenberg said.

"It's the national economy. I don't think it's anything unique to Newton County," she said.

The county has plenty of vacant houses and homes in foreclosure, she said. Eisenberg and her staff recently took a drive to view some of those homes.

"These are not dilapidated, rundown houses. They're beautiful subdivisions with beautiful homes. I'm guessing they're a part of the subprime mortgage problem, or people got laid off and couldn't pay their mortgages," she said.

Eisenberg reported that new commercial permits have remained fairly steady, with 33 issued in 2007 and 22 issued in 2008.

While those numbers aren't huge, at least they are not declining at the same speed of the residential permits, Eisenberg said.

Bob Goucher, president of the Newton County Home Builders Association, said times are tough for local builders. Membership in the association has dropped about 70 percent, he said.

"We've just stopped. There is virtually no building going on. It's the housing market and just the economy in general. We've stopped a lot more than most areas ... We should be doing 1,000 a year," he said of the decline in permits.

Developer Roger Singleton is one of those coming to terms with the tough market.

Singleton appeared before the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night, asking them to close roads in the second phase of Rosedown Subdivision off Elks Club Road. Singleton said phase two was developed about two years ago and he hasn't sold any of the 39 lots.

Singleton said developers are in competition with banks that have taken over properties, and they're losing.

"I'm in a situation right now where if we can't do something to reduce our cost of the maintenance and the cost to hold these lots, the banks are going to own them all," he said.

Singleton said he wanted to gate the subdivision and take it off the market until times improve, a request commissioners approved.

"My days are over. The future of the developer in Newton County is over," he said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.