Pinal County continued a trend of explosive growth into 2007, despite a housing market that has slowed across Arizona and in Pinal's suburban neighborhoods.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports today that Pinal County saw the third-highest rate of growth in the nation, with an 11.5 percent increase in population from July 1, 2006, to the same time in 2007. That places the county's population at 299,246, according to census figures.
The two areas that topped Pinal County during that time were parishes surrounding New Orleans, which are repopulating after Hurricane Katrina scattered many people in Louisiana.
The explosion of population in Pinal County creates both positive and negative impacts, real estate agents and academic experts say.
Since 2000, the county has experienced a 66.5 percent burst in growth, the fourth-highest rate in the nation. In 2000, the county was home to 179,715 people, according to census figures.
Much has changed since then in a county whose growth has been fueled largely by people who are employed in Maricopa County, but have looked for more affordable housing farther from their jobs.
In 2005, the housing market in Pinal County boomed. In the last three months of 2005, Pinal County saw 6,055 new and resale homes purchased, according to statistics issued by Arizona State University Polytechnic. In the first three months of 2007, home sales dropped steeply, to 3,320.
However, much of the resale market is based on bank foreclosures and short sales of homes by banks that want to get as much as they can out of a house at risk of foreclosure while developers sit on the sidelines, said Bambi Sandquist, a Pinal County real estate agent.
The market has brought in investors, but not necessarily a population of families that will continue to live and spend money in the area, she said.
"This kind of happened overnight," Sandquist said. "There's lots of investors. They've been coming and buying new homes. Prices are half of what they were in some places."
Stephen Doig, an ASU professor who studies the census and demographics, said that Pinal's substantial growth since 2000 could create a changing political representation that could place more emphasis on Pinal County.
Pinal County is split between congressional districts 1, 6 and 7.
District 6 includes Queen Creek and some of the new development that has boomed around it in the last several years. District 1 encompasses Florence and parts of eastern Pinal County and then extends to Prescott, Flagstaff and all the way to Arizona's northern border. District 7 covers some of western Pinal County, as well as Tucson and Nogales.
State reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts after the 2010 Census will bring more focus to what is still a fringe community when compared with Maricopa County, Doig said.
"Pinal is certainly going to gain some political clout," Doig said. "It'll be seen most strongly when reapportionment comes."
A housing market that's slowed could give Pinal County the opportunity to catch up with services that have been spread thin, especially road building. The area surrounding Johnson Ranch is notorious for bad traffic, as the two-lane Hunt Highway connects thousands of houses to Maricopa County.
"Growth is definitely one of those silver linings that has a cloud in it," Doig said. "It can be a burden on government ... building roads and services to suburbs that increasingly have numbers of people and places that are owned by the bank."
Jordan Rose, a local land-use lawyer, said that the slowdown in the housing market and the population growth could give the county a chance to catch its breath.
For instance, the first wave of suburbs built in the county were assessed no fees that would help pay for roads, schools and parks.
"The slowdown is allowing government to catch up with some of the planning," Rose said.