Rush to the Valley

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If you feel like you're losing elbow room in the Lehigh Valley — whether in restaurants, in school, at the mall or on the road — you are.

In the last four years, the region has gained the equivalent of the city of Easton's population — 30,000 more people who now call the Valley home.

Experts did not predict this. In fact, the Lehigh Valley is likely to hit its population forecast for 2010 this year, a full five years early.

The growth is happening at a time when other major metropolitan areas in Pennsylvania are losing population or growing anemically. In fact, the Lehigh Valley is the fastest-growing metro region in Pennsylvania and among the top in the Northeast.

The surge is historic. Not since the 1920s has population increased this rapidly, not even during the baby-boom 1950s.

What's driving this population rise in a place viewed as a slow-growth region still fighting its way out of Rust-Belt depression?

Real estate.

Almost all of the increase comes from people moving here and fleeing high-cost metro areas to enjoy the benefits of the region's relatively low housing prices, which are the heart of the Lehigh Valley's modest cost of living. And unlike previous short-term spikes in population, this dramatic upturn may endure.

The population of the Lehigh Valley metro region, defined by the Census Bureau as Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon and Warren counties, soared by 4.14 percent from 2000 to 2004 to a total of 771,039. The bulk of that growth was in Lehigh and Northampton counties, whose combined population in 2004 was 609,000, the most current Census Bureau estimate.

From 2000 to 2004, the number of people living in Lehigh and Northampton counties grew:

An average of 1.25 percent a year. That may not sound like much until you realize that in each of the past two years, the region annually grew by about 8,800 people.

Five times faster than Pennsylvania and almost three times faster than the Mid-

Atlantic region of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

At a faster rate than the United States as a whole.

Migration mecca

The Lehigh Valley's last population explosion occurred five decades ago, mirroring the national baby boom after World War II. But the current population increase is altogether different.

Instead of a rise in births, it stems mostly from people moving into the area. Bedroom communities for the New York and Philadelphia metro areas are stretching their boundaries and converging on the Lehigh Valley.

This isn't the first time the Valley has been a migration mecca. The so-called ''New Jersey Invasion'' of 1989 saw hordes of Garden State residents fleeing high taxes and high housing costs, as Interstate 78 was completed through the Lehigh Valley.

This time, New Jersey Invasion II is bigger, augmented by a northward push from Philadelphia.

In fact, 85 percent of Lehigh Valley population growth over the past four years is because of migration. In Northampton County, it's 91 percent, according to Census data. Today, nearly one in five workers in Northampton County — about 24,000 people — works out of state. The vast majority work in the New Jersey counties of Warren, Hunterdon, Somerset and Morris. In Lehigh County, out-of-state commuters doubled from 1990, to more than 6,000.

A secondary — but growing — migration source is the Philadelphia suburbs. Those people are more likely to move to Lehigh County and drive southward to jobs in Montgomery, Bucks and Berks counties.

Valleywide over the past four years, 25,000 more people moved into the area than moved out. Annual net migration into the region has more than doubled in that time.

The reason people are moving here is simple: They can live better because their money goes further.

Spurred by the lowest home mortgage rates in decades, many are cashing in on their home equity in high-cost areas and buying huge homes in the Lehigh Valley. Meanwhile, they're willing to commute to their higher-paying jobs near big cities.

Without earning an extra dime, they can buy bigger houses, save on insurance and taxes, and generally live wealthier lives. So far, they've found that the costs of commuting — gas, wear and tear on vehicles, and hour-plus journeys to work — are worthwhile.

Even with a higher-than-average run-up in Lehigh Valley home prices and overall consumer inflation recently, the region's cost of living is only 95 percent of the U.S. average and far less than large East Coast cities.

For example, similar four-bedroom houses for sale are listed at $874,000 in Bedminster, N.J., and $450,000 in many Philadelphia suburbs such as Doylestown or Upper Gwynedd Township. But a similar house in the Lehigh Valley would cost about $320,000, according to list prices this month on Realtor.com.

''The issue is how much inconvenience of travel do people want to put up with; What kind of tradeoff are they willing to make?'' said Michael Kaiser, director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, a regional group that studies local population patterns. ''When is the difference in cost reduced to such a degree that people decide it isn't worth the hour or hour-and-a-half commute anymore?''

The recent migration has solidified the Lehigh Valley — about midway between New York and Philadelphia — as a prime bedroom community on the East Coast. Consider that the Lehigh Valley metro region has a work force of about 405,000 but is home to just 330,000 jobs, a deficit of some 75,000 jobs — a sign the region is truly becoming a bedroom community for workers commuting to the larger metropolitan areas.

Driving a bargain

David Barnes, 47, of Upper Macungie Township was among those migrating here within the last four years.

He and his wife wanted a bigger house and more land than they had in Lake Hopatcong, N.J., and they wanted better schools for their son and daughter.

''I wanted to take advantage of the appreciation on my home and move up,'' he said. ''That's difficult to do while staying in New Jersey.''

So the Barnes family moved to the Lehigh Valley in September 2002. They sold the old house for $245,000 and bought one here for $170,000.

They lowered the mortgage payment, cut property taxes in half and got a house with 400 more square feet and a half-acre of property, more than double the size of the lot they had in New Jersey. They recently installed an in-ground pool.

''These are things we couldn't do in Jersey,'' Barnes said. His daughter, 14, and son, 12, attend classes in the highly touted Parkland School District.

But there's a big tradeoff: a 180-mile round-trip commute.

Since the move, Barnes has commuted along I-78 to his job as a manager at a wastewater treatment plant in Bayonne, N.J. His silver diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta racks up some 60,000 miles a year.

He even commutes to northern New Jersey on Saturdays for his second job as a home inspector. He's reminded every week why he moved, when he inspects three-bedroom bi-levels in New Jersey that are selling for a half-million dollars. He compares that to a newly constructed four-bedroom house in the Lehigh Valley that sells for $350,000.

Sure, he'd like to work closer to home, if only local jobs paid the same, he said. In Bayonne, he earns about the same as an engineer at local companies Agere Systems or Air Products and Chemicals, he said, declining to cite a specific amount.

''A lot of people think I'm crazy, but I know I'm not,'' he said. ''It's about getting a better quality of life.

''I think a lot of people are doing what I'm doing.''

Good and bad

Barnes is right.

From the east, they come from the New York/New Jersey region. They often land in Northampton County's townships of Bethlehem, Palmer and Forks. From the south, they come from the Philadelphia area. They settle in the Allentown suburbs of Lower and Upper Macungie, and North and South Whitehall townships.

''Migration is really what's driving population growth in the area,'' Kaiser said. ''It's being driven today by the gradual spreading out of urbanization from those two core areas.''

The Lehigh Valley's rate of population increase doesn't match the hottest areas of the country in the West and Southeast. But among regions in this part of the country, it's exceptional.

And for those already living in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton region, the number of people converging on the Lehigh Valley in the new millennium should be both impressive and alarming.

Population growth is fundamental to economic prosperity. It expands the tax base, attracts employers and stimulates overall economic activity in a region. In that way, it may be a blessing for the Lehigh Valley, an area still trying to reinvent itself and leave behind its Rust-Belt economy.

Retailers are noticing. No fewer than four developers are competing to build upscale retail centers in the Lehigh Valley — this in addition to a flurry of major retail development in recent years.

''There's a lot of interest on the part of the retailers because they realize it is a hot growth market,'' said Amy Hawley, owner of NAI/Hawley Realty, which handles industrial and office property sales and leasing in the Lehigh Valley.

But there's a downside to population growth.

In a few short years, the boom has boosted the Lehigh Valley's reputation as a bedroom community and sent home prices through the roof.

And it has created a land-use crisis, as green pastures are ripped up at a furious rate to make way for more houses and retail shops.

Today, rush-hour traffic backs up on the region's main artery, Route 22, while experts predict its parallel to the south, I-78, is headed for a similar fate.

It is ironic for those moving here: Their mass migration is spawning in the Lehigh Valley the very problems they're fleeing.

For those already here, it creates worry.

Nearly 60 percent of residents surveyed in 1999 said they wanted slower growth in the Lehigh Valley, according to a study by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Residents were concerned about traffic, crowded schools and the loss of open space.

Since then, those fears have been realized.

''Life in the Lehigh Valley is getting worse'' was the most popular response in the past three annual Morning Call/Muhlenberg College Quality of Life polls.

Gabriel Jay Rochelle, 66, of Allentown, doesn't quite agree that life is getting worse, but he's passionately concerned about the seemingly uncontrolled growth of homes and commercial property. An avid bicyclist, Rochelle sees up close the apple orchards and farmers' fields being plowed under as he rides from Allentown to Kutztown. He calls the phenomenon the ''Macungie explosion,'' referring to the tremendous growth west of Allentown near the borough of Macungie.

''It seems like every week I go past yet one more field with a dreaded zoning notice, saying the next crop of half-a-million-dollar houses will be built on this place that used to grow corn,'' he said.

And cycling has become more harrowing with the increase in road traffic in recent years, especially because of construction trucks and new residents unaccustomed to cyclists on the road. ''There are some days I think I'm taking my life in my hands,'' he said.

''I don't mean to sound miserable or curmudgeonly,'' he said. ''But there's a certain sense of hopelessness, people wringing their hands.

''I can't see that there's any control in the development at all. If we keep growing, it will be nothing but a strip city from Phillipsburg to Reading.''

Will it last?

Some observers expect the population increases of 2000 to 2004 to slow in the latter half of this decade.

If it's true that low interest rates on home mortgages jump-started migration to the Lehigh Valley, then rising interest rates through the rest of the decade may slow that migration, Kaiser suggested. Also, as the cost of living accelerates in the Lehigh Valley, it reduces the incentive to move here and commute to jobs elsewhere.

In addition, Kaiser said, many economic cycles in the Lehigh Valley, including population, seem to last about five years, suggesting the region is nearing the end of a growth cycle.

''It's growing a little faster than we predicted,'' he said. ''I don't think that is going to continue. It depends to some degree on what happens with the housing market and the economy in the coming years. They may not be as inclined to move if the economy slows down.''

The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission forecasts only modest population growth this decade, 620,471 people by 2010. But at the current pace, the Lehigh Valley may well hit the commission's population forecast this year.

Kaiser concedes the rate of growth is eye-opening. And he concedes his group's population estimate may be low — very low. If it continues, long-term problems and benefits of population growth become near-term ones.

''It may accelerate further. That's one of the perils of trying to forecast something like this,'' Kaiser said. ''It's a growth driven by immigration, and that's a very difficult thing to estimate. We have a much better handle on mortality and births than we do on migrational trends.''

Others suggest the population boom will continue, rather than peter out like the one in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That migration from New Jersey stemmed largely from I-78's completion, which made it a quick commute from Lehigh Valley bedrooms to high-paying Garden State jobs. Finishing the road released pent-up interest in some New Jersey residents to move to Pennsylvania. Those more ambivalent about making the move stayed.

Today, historically low mortgage rates coupled with accelerating home prices in New Jersey have again caused Garden State residents to look westward. And those near Philadelphia looked northward.

''This time around it is not a physical thing like a road being connected,'' said Kamran Afshar, a Bethlehem economist and market researcher. This migration wave could have stamina, eventually ebbing as the cost-of-living difference narrows, making the long commute less worthwhile, he said.

But that slow balancing may take years. In the meantime, Lehigh Valley residents will continue to lose elbow room. And they could experience the benefits and ills of a rapid population growth unseen for generations.

gregory.karp@mcall.com

610-820-6643

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