Stanislaus County's population growth rate slowed for a third straight year in 2007, while those in Merced and San Joaquin counties — and California overall — slightly increased, according to a state report released Thursday.
Modesto — among the area's most stagnant cities in terms of growth — will not reverse that trend this year, Mayor Jim Ridenour reckons. Building in the area's fastest-growing city, Lathrop in southern San Joaquin County, likewise has ground to a halt as the economy sours, acknowledged Mayor Kristy Sayles.
"I am very confident in saying that Stanislaus County is in a recession," declared David Hosley, president of the Modesto-based Great Valley Center, noting higher unemployment rates and some of the nation's worst foreclosure numbers. "Maybe national figures say the economy is slowly growing, but I don't think it is here."
California's population as of Jan. 1 topped 38 million for the first time, according to estimates released by the state Department of Finance. The state added 490,000 people last year to grow by 1.3 percent — identical to Stanislaus County's rate.
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But while California's rate slowly climbed the past two years, Stanislaus County's has done the opposite over the past three.
Modesto may be the county's largest city, but it's also the slowest growing. The city now counts 209,936 people, having added only 1,786 people in 2007 for a growth rate of just 0.9 percent.
"That's not necessarily a bad thing," Ridenour said. "The city of Modesto needed to slow down for a while. I know I'll be hated by builders, but I truthfully think they realize it, too, and will agree that something needed to be done."
The fastest-growing city in Stanislaus County last year was Oakdale, with 4.3 percent.
Lathrop's 6.5 percent growth rate made it California's sixth-fastest growing city among 478 in 2007, and the only Northern San Joaquin Valley city in the state's top 10. Sayles gives credit to thousands of homes built last year in a new growth area on the west side of Interstate 5, including Mossdale Landing.
"It's what we've been planning for all along," the mayor said.
But the ugly real estate market hasn't spared Lathrop, which also is the area's youngest city, having incorporated in 1989.
"Builders are pretty much closing up shop and waiting it out," Sayles said.
Five other San Joaquin Valley cities made the state's top 10 list of fastest-growing in 2007, but all are in the south end, including three in Fresno County (San Joaquin city, 17.4 percent; Coalinga, 5.9 percent; Fowler, 5.8 percent) and the others even farther south (California City, 9.6 percent; Dinuba, 6 percent).
"It's spillover from Los Angeles, mostly," Hosley said.
In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, Merced County posted the largest growth rate with 1.9 percent in 2007, perhaps driven, Hosley said, by continued growth of the fledgling University of California at Merced, which opened in 2005. That mark is far below the county's 2.5 percent growth rate in 2004.
San Joaquin County's population increased 1.5 percent last year, compared with 2.45 percent in 2004.
Other notables from 2007 numbers:
For the first time, populations in Turlock and Merced climbed over marks of 70,000 and 80,000, respectively. Turlock had 70,158 people as of Jan. 1, according to state estimates, and Merced counted 80,608.
"It's interesting that we hit this marker during our centennial year," said Turlock Councilman Kurt Spycher. "You wonder if the founders of Turlock could have ever imagined?"
Oakdale's population of 19,337 puts it within striking distance of the 20,000-person milestone.
With an estimated decrease of nine souls, Sonora (minus 0.2 percent) joined only 37 cities in California posting net losses. Two had no change, while 439 gained people.
Despite Escalon's growth cap and pride in smallness, the city added 90 residents in 2007 to grow 1.3 percent — a higher rate than the San Joaquin County cities of Tracy (1.2 percent), Stockton (0.8 percent) and Lodi (0.7 percent).
Ripon's 3.1 percent increase didn't come close to Lathrop's but still was second-fastest in San Joaquin County.
Livingston's 4.3 percent growth rate was fastest in Merced County.
San Francisco's 824,525 people represents its largest population on record, continuing an upward trend that began in 2006.
California's 10 fastest-growing cities increased an average of 8.5 percent — down from the 13 percent average from a year ago.
The state's 131,107 new homes in 2007 represents the smallest gain since 2001, dropping sharply from the 2005 peak of 197,229 new homes.
California has 67 cities with more than 100,000 people.
Last week at an American Planning Association conference in Las Vegas, planner Arthur C. Nelson estimated that the United States population will top 1 billion between 2100 and 2120, the first time an expert has predicted that possibility, the association said. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the country's current population at 303.9 million.
Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.