Experts project Ocean County’s population will grow at nearly triple the rate of the rest of the state through 2016.

But some southern Ocean County officials doubt that their communities — once the epicenter of the growth — have the ability to grow any more, placing the burden for future growth on already densely populated municipalities in the north or the currently blossoming Barnegat Township.

A study by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Division of Labor Market and Demographic Research found that the county’s population increased from 208,470 in 1970 to an estimated 573,678 in 2009. This 175.2 percent increase in population far exceeded the state’s growth rate of 21.5 percent during that same period.

The study also projected that Ocean County will continue to grow at a faster rate, at 11 percent, than the state’s 4.6 percent in the decade between 2006 and 2016. And by then, the study said, it will be the fifth most populous county in the state.

“I don’t think that this growth was really ‘all of a sudden.’ It’s really been going on for about 50 years here and I think the spark that set it off was the construction of the Garden State Parkway, which opened in the mid-1950s,” said David McKeon, the director of Ocean County’s Department of Planning. “Once that happened, it gave people access to this underdeveloped and relatively inexpensive land. And many people now had the opportunity to keep their jobs in the cities, or northern part of the state, while still being able to live in a more rural, quiet area.”

But McKeon said Ocean County’s population growth was still somewhat gradual until it peaked in the 1970s and ’80s.

“It’s been slowly leveling off after that,” he said. “And we’re still going to see that population continue to climb in some areas, but it definitely won’t be substantial. There is no way that we could sustain the kind of growth we had in the ’70s and ’80s again, mostly because there are more environmental and land-use regulations in place than there were back then. We also have a lot of publicly owned land here in Ocean County that most people aren’t aware of. About 43 percent of the county is already under federal, state, or county public ownership and will never be developed.”

McKeon said most of the future development would be “infill” in municipalities in the northern part of the county — such as Toms River, Jackson Township, and Lakewood — where there has already been a lot of development, but where growth is still expected in areas that can tie the existing developments together.

“But a lot of townships in the south — like Barnegat, Stafford and even Little Egg Harbor — we expect to level off more. And a lot of the development that was planned for, is kind of already winding down,” he said. “Growth has definitely made its mark here in the last 10 or 20 years, but I don’t really see it continuing too much longer.”

‘Capped’ growth

The vast wilderness that was Ocean County only a half-century ago has rapidly transformed from a peaceful playground solely reserved for “Pineys” into a burgeoning commercial and recreational hub. A place where young families flock for an affordable start and where thousands of senior citizens have fled from urban areas for a penny-wise and convenient retirement option.

When Jim Moran first moved into the Ocean Acres section of Stafford Township in 1979, his house was the only one on his street.

The development was not new, but a state-mandated moratorium on construction west of the Garden State Parkway had limited the 5,500-lot community to less than 800 homes.

But when the moratorium was lifted in the 1990s after a sewer system was installed in Ocean Acres, construction of most of the remaining lots caught up — and in a hurry.

“We had lived there for 15 or 18 years without any neighbors, but then all of a sudden people were building homes everywhere,” said Moran, the township’s administrator. “And one of the biggest reasons was that it was so inexpensive. It became an area where families starting out could come get a home significantly less than they’d probably be able to get up in (northern New Jersey). People were buying houses here for a few hundred thousand dollars that they would be adding $100,000 to $500,000 to the price of if they were to buy the same house in (northern New Jersey).”

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show Stafford Township’s population more than doubled from 1990 to 2009 from 13,325 to 26,818. And the township initially projected that its population could soar to 40,000, but Moran said smart planning was able to cut that number to 27,000.

“You have to try and manage your growth so you’re still able to provide services to all the people who live here,” he said. “And Stafford was one of the first, if not the first, towns in the state to have its Smart Growth plan recognized by the state.”

In fact, the township was seemingly out of developable land until a plan to cap and then build on the township’s former landfill added an additional 565 housing units to the mix.

“And once those are completed, it will be the end of any substantive development here in Stafford,” Moran said.

Not so ‘hidden treasure’

Little Egg Harbor Township was once dubbed by Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, as “The Little Hidden Treasure by the Bay.”

The 73.2-square-mile community offers residents two distinctly different lifestyle options — waterfront living or a tranquil lifestyle in the Pine Barrens.

And it was only a matter of time before outsiders discovered this as well.

The township’s population skyrocketed from a mere 847 in 1960 to 26,818 in 2009, which represents a more than 3,000 percent increase.

Most of that was due to the development of the lagoon-front communities in the Mystic Islands and the influx of massive age-restricted communities.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development study found that in the past decade, Ocean County’s rapid population growth of 12.3 percent was directly the result of the county being the state’s top destination for “domestic migration.”

“Close to 75 percent of our population growth has come from our retirement communities,” Little Egg Harbor Township Mayor Ray Gormley said. “It has been a nice balance because it hasn’t put a tremendous burden on our school system, for the most part. It’s normal for schools to grow some, but ours haven’t done it at the alarming rate that other districts in the county did.”

But Gormley said that once the long-awaited Blue Comet age-restricted community is finally built, the township’s growth would essentially be capped.

“What we’re really hoping for is for some of this additional population to start bringing in some more things on the commercial end of it,” said Gormley, adding he is optimistic that construction of a planned Walmart will be under way within the next year to 18 months. “We’d like to see the ratable balance start to equal out, like with the Walmart and other stores that may come here because of it. And this could be enough of a basis for a consumption license that could perhaps draw an Outback Steakhouse, a TGIF or an Applebee’s.

“But as far as available land, there’s not much of it left,” he said.

Get it while it lasts

If any substantial future growth does happen in southern Ocean County, much of it could likely happen in Barnegat Township.

Since 1970, the township’s populations has jumped from 1,539 to 22,643 — an increase of 1,371 percent.

And the township still has 2,500 to 3,000 housing units already approved that have yet to be built.

“Even through the economic downturn, we’re seeing 120 to 150 homes a year go up,” Township Administrator David Breeden said. “Development is still very active in Barnegat and I firmly believe that it will continue. Especially as the infrastructure improves in the southern part of the county.”

Breeden said the infrastructure in many southern Ocean County communities is only now starting to catch up to the enormous rate of growth and development.

“There has been a tremendous amount of growing pains here, particularly because the infrastructure was nowhere close to capable of handling such an influx of people and it has caused a strain on our municipal resources,” Breeden said. “This has really forced us to do a much better job at being more efficient and effective, especially after we’ve had to reduce our full-time work staff due to (budgetary constraints).”

There are also restrictions on development in Barnegat, such as ordinances regulating building height — to prevent high rises — and state restictions on where growth can occur. The township’s state-regulated “growth zone” encompasses the Ocean Acres section of the township and a chunk of the land west of the Garden State Parkway.

But the recently opened parkway entrance at Exit 67 has already started attracting new businesses, such as a CVS and a Wawa. Breeden said he is hopeful that the exit and various other infrastructure improvements will help Barnegat catch up even more on the commercial end.

“We don’t anticipate build out for another 10 years or so. But we are reaching a point of critical mass, where we’re to the point that our work force can only do so much in a given workday,” Breeden said. “And Ocean County will continue to grow because it is such a desirable place to live. We just have to find a way to catch up with it.”

Contact Robert Spahr:

609-272-7283

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