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Leader of the Pack

In Flagler County, the look of growth is a two-car garage and a golf course view. This booming slice of coastal suburbia, with nearly as many golf courses as public schools, has led the nation in both population and housing growth for two years running.

In 2005, the county's housing stock
increased by nearly 15%; the number of residents, now about 89,000 and centered in the 7-year-old city of Palm Coast about 25 miles north of Daytona Beach, increased by nearly 11%. The growth is no aberration: From 2000 to 2005, the county's population jumped by more than half -- tops in the nation.

"We're not looking for the No. 1 ranking, but we do want a strong, economically viable community," says Flagler County Commission Chairman Jim Darby, a Realtor who moved to Flagler from Miami in 1978. "If we do it right, growth can be a very good thing for us."

Flagler is within commuting distance of both Daytona Beach and St. Augustine and to a lesser degree Jacksonville and Orlando. Many new residents, explains Darby, gladly swap longer commutes for newer schools, less traffic and one of Florida's lowest millage rates (10th lowest in the state). Many new residents come from within Florida, but brokers and agents say a large number are moving from the Northeastern U.S., trailing parents and grandparents who retired here when the region was principally a retirement community.

Flagler's median single-family home price of $292,000 is higher than Daytona's ($207,100) and Jacksonville's ($190,800), but there are few older homes and virtually no low-income housing to drag down the market average.

Flagler's population boom is loudest in Palm Coast, a swath of timber and farmland acquired by New York-based ITT Community Development Corp. in the 1960s and platted with 48,000 homesites on 42,000 acres. In 1996, before much was built, ITT sold out to Palm Coast Holdings, a subsidiary of Minnesota's Allete Inc., a publicly held electric utility.

Today, the company remains the region's principal landholder, laying infrastructure before selling residential and commercial sites to developers. Its latest ventures are a built-from-scratch suburban downtown called Town Center at Palm Coast and Palm Coast Park, a big-box district, both promising a much-needed commercial core to a place long on residents and short on basic services. "As often occurs in these fast-growing areas," says Tammy Bong, Flagler County's Office of Management and Budget director, "commercial development is lagging the residential."

Flagler's school system is also playing catch-up. Total student population has doubled in five years. An average of 120 new students arrive each month. The district plans to open one new school each year over the next 15 years. "Growth is going to happen. You can embrace it, or you can let it run you over," says Flagler County Public Schools Superintendent Bill Delbrugge. "We try to see it as a positive thing -- bringing new people, new energy, new ideas into our community."

Those new ideas often include higher expectations about municipal services that can befuddle local officials. Brian Teeple, CEO of the Northeast Florida Regional Council, says the problem is common in rural areas suddenly overrun with city folk. "It's the 'pickup versus the Lexus.' Locals don't expect much from government; the out-of-towners want everything they had before and more," explains Teeple. "We're starting to see those bumper stickers that say, 'We don't care how you did it back home.' "

Bong acknowledges the challenge but says the county's growing tax base eases the pain. Flush with "new growth money," as county officials call it, Flagler is about to open a new administrative building and has recently opened an emergency operations center. In June, it will open a new courthouse. Spending on transportation and social services rise sharply each year. Two years ago, countywide property assessments jumped 38%; last year it was up 37%.

Officials expect assessments to rise another 22% to 28% this year, despite a possible dip in the county millage rate.

How long Flagler's double-digit growth will last is unclear. Environmental groups and slow-growth advocates are beginning to rumble. Higher rates and rising home prices cooled demand for new permits last year. But planners say buildable land remains abundant and, in the long term, the pro-growth mood in county hall should pave the way for new subdivisions, especially in the untouched expanses west of I-95. Projections from the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research show Flagler's population possibly doubling within 20 years.

Teeple says that could be a conservative estimate, noting that all of northeast Florida, not just Flagler, is in a phenomenal growth mode. His office is tracking 27 developments of regional impact, or DRIs -- the most ever. "Flagler is No. 1, but this kind of growth is happening all over up here," says Teeple, excited, yet with a hint of unease. "We've always looked down at south Florida, happy we don't have the traffic and the densities they do. But if we don't manage our growth carefully, we may be dealing with those very same problems."

In Session
Matanzas High School in Palm Coast is among the new schools Flagler County has built to keep up with a student population that has doubled in five years. An average of 120 new students arrive each month, and the district expects to open a new school each year for the next 15 years.

Palm Coast Pioneer
Louis DeTimmerman, 76, moved to Palm Coast in 1998 from Myrtle Beach, S.C. He bought his home for $134,000. It's now worth $350,000, he says. "If I'd known how valuable this land would be, I would have bought three more lots, which were going for $4,500 when I moved here. None of this was here. It was just me, my wife and the armadillos."

Louis DeTimmerman

"We loved that there are so many parks and recreation areas . "The kids love it." John's short commute is a big plus: The drive to his job in New Orleans took an hour.

New Residents
From left, John, Dancer the Great Dane, Margaret, Carter, 10, Fletcher, 9, and Tucker Subers, 17, moved to Palm Coast from Louisiana in August, after John was named tournament director of the inaugural Ginn Championship at Hammock Beach.

From Scratch
Construction is now under way on a downtown for Palm Coast. Renderings (above) of the Town Center project show part of the mixed-use development intended to provide both additional residences and a commercial core for the fast-growing area.