Palm Coast grew 10.3 percent between 2020 and 2022, to 98,411 people, according to the Census Bureau’s latest estimate, released today. The city is on pace to cross well past the 100,000 threshold this year, and based on the last two years’ trend, likely did so in February or March.
The city’s torrid growth pace makes it the 18th-fastest growing city in the nation in that span (out of 796 cities with populations of 50,000 or more), and the fifth-fastest growing in Florida, behind North Port (13.8 percent growth), Port St. Lucie (13.1), Cape Coral (11.9), and Fort Myers (11.1).
Palm Coast is now the 24th-largest city in Florida, surpassing Melbourne, Fort Myers and Sunrise in the last few years and making gains on Boca Raton. And Flagler County is the third-fastest growing county in the state.
“And it puts us squarely number one in our MSA,” Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin said. “Our metropolitan statistical area is extremely important. Because number one, they’ll have to rename the MSA, which never even included the words Palm Coast in the past. For site selectors and for Fortune 500 companies and for corporate America, we now are on their radar because of our ranking in the MSA.”
As the News-Journal first reported earlier this month, based on University of Florida estimates, Palm Coast was already the largest city in the Flagler-Volusia zone, exceeding the population of Deltona. In fact, it is now the largest city in Flagler, Volusia, St, Johns and Putnam counties. Today’s Census bureau figures specify that Deltona, while still growing, is at 97,265, up from 95,252 in 2021, just a 2 percent increase.
Bunnell, too, has grown almost as fast as Palm Coast, by 9 percent in two years, but from a smaller base, going from a population of 3,326 in 2020 to 3,631 in 2022. That growth is driven almost entirely by the Grand Reserve subdivision. The population of Flagler Beach, in comparison, has barely budged: from 5,162 to 5,279. that city has different challenges, not least of them its diminishing physical size as the ocean on one side and the Intracoastal on the other continue to grind at its shores.
“No doubt we are a destination, from where we are in proximity and access to major population centers, but still being far enough away that we’re not in the middle of all that,” said County Commissioner Andy Dance. “That’s the challenge for us in our position, is protecting health safety and welfare and the character of the community.”
The vast trove of numbers was part of today’s Vintage 2022 population estimates by the Census Bureau. The numbers also included the latest housing estimates for Flagler County, which also grew sharply–from 55,990 housing units in 2020 to 60,778 units in 2022, an increase of 8.6 percent, more than double the 3.6 percent increase in housing units statewide, but still not enough to address a housing shortage.
According to the Flagler County Association of Realtors’ latest tabulations, Flagler County had a supply of just 3 months’ worth of housing in March–an improvement over a year ago, when the supply was below a month’s worth, but still very low compared to historic standards. The low inventory pushes up prices, with the median home selling at $372,000, and rental prices rising apace.
The growth has innumerable implications for the local infrastructure, social and emergency services, schools and tax policy, with the demographic breakdown affecting those implications. For example, between 2010 and 2020, the population shifted substantially toward an older set, with those 65 and older going from around 25 percent of the population to over 30 percent, while the school-age set fell substantially. That’s in part why health care and assisted living facilities have sprouted, including AdventHealth Palm Coast’s new hospital on Palm Coast Parkway, while schools have not.
“We are we are poorly skewed in our current demographic,” Alfin said, aging as a community since the last census. “We as a community need to find a balance and need to bring a younger resident to the city of Palm Coast for several reasons. There’s a financial factor, there’s a service level factor, but all cities thrive when they are in balance. When cities are out of balance. We suffer consequences. So for example, our ad valorem tax is squarely on the backs of 90 percent-plus of our single family homeowners. That’s out of balance. Our demographic age is growing older, not younger. It’s a fact that younger residents spend more financially and are better for the local economy. Those that are strangled with fixed income or pensions perhaps are not able to spend at the same rate. They don’t have large families to support so they don’t spend in the local economy as well. So there are a lot of reasons why bringing a younger resident to the city will be helpful.”
That’s one of the reasons Alfin has been focused on developing Palm Coast west of U.S. 1. “The expansion to the west affords us the opportunity to finally build housing that is affordable to a young career minded resident to provide jobs in the form of health care services, training careers, medical technology,” he said, also citing the broadband networking of the city to turn it into a gig city.
Meanwhile, local governments have to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to handle the growth, though the rapid growth seen today is filling subdivisions and houses and apartments planned and built a year, two years, three years ago or more. “You don’t want to be caught with inadequate infrastructure while there’s still people moving in. All the development programs look at capacity issues and all of those things have to be met prior to the development being approved,” he said, rephrasing language he uses on the commission when getting into the details of development proposals that routinely go before commissioners. “It’s a delicate balance. Growing too fast, we’ve seen it, is not healthy. It puts a strain on everything.”
Both Flagler County government and Palm Coast are just now embarking on re-writes of their comprehensive plans, the blueprints that map out the long-term vision of what the county and city should look like 10, 20, 30 years down the road. The processes are elaborate and invite public participation.
Rapid growth in Palm Coast has been evident from visible infill construction in every neighborhood and from the large development of new subdivisions from Town Center to west of U.S. 1 to Belle Terre Parkway–and in chagrined comments by existing residents bemoaning the growth in comment sections every time an article reports on a new development.
The growth has also been evident in the city’s pace of permitting but, surprisingly, not as much in the school district’s enrollment, which began this school year around the same 13,000 mark where it has been for a decade and a half. One reason for that is the continuing erosion of enrollment from public to private and home schools as the state has increased financial support for families choosing that route, and this year increased it massively–making $8,000 available for every student choosing to leave public school.
The fastest growing three cities in the country are Georgetown in Texas, a city almost the size of Palm Coast (29.1 percent), Leander, also in Texas (25.6), and Queen Creek, Arizona, a distant suburb of Phoenix. Six of the 15 fastest-growing cities were in Texas, three in Florida, two in Arizona, and only one in California.
The largest city in Florida is Jacksonville, growing to just under 1 million people, followed by Miami (449,514), Tampa (398,173) and Orlando (316,081).
For all its growth, Palm Coast remains a very long way from what ITT had planned when it was building it in the mid-1970s. At the time, when Flagler County’s entire population was 4,450, ITT was projecting that Palm Coast would be a city of 600,000 by the year 2000, according to a 1974 New York Times article. It may yet get there, but somewhere closer to the end of this century, assuming rising seas aren’t closer to I-95.
According to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research , which provides the state’s most sought-after population estimates, current estimates have Flagler County’s entire population growing to 233,300 by 2050, going by the highest estimate; to 183,700, going by the medium estimate; and to 134,100, going by the low estimate.
The bureau’s high estimates have never panned out for Flagler, and its medium estimates have tended to be much exaggerated. The bureau itself cautioned against too much reliance on the estimates in a brief analyzing its many errors. For example, the bureau’s 2007 low estimate had Flagler County growing to 150,700 people by 2025, a grossly erroneous estimate. Its high estimate was 245,800. Still, to this day, chambers of commerce, county and city governments and law enforcement agencies rely on those estimates in planning budgets and buildings.
Dance grew up in Flagler County on large acreage his family bought when it moved down from Connecticut just over half a century ago. Dance did not romanticize the change he’s witnessed, seeing behind it the very reason that drew his family to Florida.
“We were no different, we moved from Connecticut 51 years ago to Flagler County, and it’s non-stop since then,” he said. “People are moving to Florida for a reason, and Florida will continue to grow. What I’ve seen personally is what pushes me now, the need to protect the character. Our challenge from the state level, not even here, is protecting drinking water, protecting natural resources, so that Florida will still have some of what we moved here for.”