Bainbridge population growth hits 8 year low

The brisk pace of Bainbridge Island’s population growth slowed to a crawl this year, casting doubt on projections steering current city planning.

According to state demographers, Bainbridge’s estimated growth hit an eight-year low in 2008, dropping from an average of about 2 percent to less than 0.5 percent.

The slow rise means the island will add only 100 people in 2008, putting the total population at about 23,180.

“This is interesting because so much of Bainbridge politics is based on the prediction that growth is out of control,” said Tim Bailey, an island real estate agent and chair of the city’s 2025 Growth Advisory Committee. “As a resident, I’d say this could be welcome news because it will make it easier to plan and give us time to react.”

The state Office of Financial Management, which tracks population trends for budget and policy research, also estimates in its latest report that the island’s population growth has sunk below Kitsap County’s for the first time in the last eight years. While typically growing at a rate of one fourth to one half that of Bainbridge, the county’s total estimated population in 2008 grew at about 0.8 percent.

The cooling housing market has downshifted growth in many Washington communities, said Theresa Lowe, the state’s chief demographer.

“Many job seekers are finding it difficult to sell their homes, or to relocate to accept employment at the price of paying two mortgages for an extended period,” she said.

Bainbridge may be especially impacted by this trend because island home prices are beyond the reach of many first-time home buyers. The typical Bainbridge home buyer already owns a home and can leverage its value to purchase a new home on the island, where the year-to-date median price is $645,000.

“People that would like to move here are unable to sell their homes somewhere else,” said City Councilman Barry Peters. “That cuts into the sales or construction on Bainbridge.”

While the drop in growth is likely rooted in the national housing market, the local implications are more difficult to gauge.

According to city planner Steve Morse, a one-year dip does not make a trend.

He also warns that the OFM’s estimates are based on a formula that uses the number of housing units recently built in an area, the estimated number of people in each unit and the area’s vacancy rate. The formula does not factor certain population and market trend nuances that can skew the numbers in some cases.

“We don’t know what this means yet because we haven’t seen it over enough time,” he said. “If it continues to decrease, we’ll have to plan accordingly.”

A trend showing a general population decline could have wide-ranging impacts on zoning, roads, sewer and other infrastructure planning, Morse said.

This year’s growth estimate could be an anomaly, Bailey said. The island’s growth dipped to just under 1 percent in 2002, but made a quick recovery to over 2 percent in 2003.

“That decline was right after 9/11 and the drop off in the dot-com market,” Bailey said. “Both (declines) are in times of a relatively soft market.”

A low growth trend consistent with this year’s estimate could put the city out of step with planning mandates under the state Growth Management Act, Peters said.

Under the GMA, the city must plan to accommodate a population of about 28,700 people by 2025. But continued growth at 0.5 percent would barely top 25,000, according to Peters.

“The question for me is: what future will we have on Bainbridge in the year 2025?” he said. “Will it be a future like last year, where we get only 1,700 more than we have now, or will it be a future with seven or eight thousand new people, as we’ve been planning for?”