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Coastal populations continue to increase in number and density -- NOAA report

There's a finite amount of coastal land area in the United States, and people keep moving there.

That's the message from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Coastal Population Report, released yesterday. The report, produced in conjunction with the Census Bureau, notes the challenges that increased density can have on government services and management resources when coastal storms like Sandy and Isaac hit.

"As more people move to the coast, county managers will see a dual challenge -- protecting a growing population from coastal hazards, as well as protecting coastal ecosystems from a growing population," Holly Bamford, assistant NOAA administrator for the National Ocean Service, said in a news release on the report.

The report is the first of its type -- a previous version came out in 2005 -- to distinguish between what it calls coastal shoreline counties -- which abut the coast, major estuaries and the Great Lakes -- and coastal watershed counties, which have a significant portion of their water draining to those areas.

The reason for this distinction is to give more shoreline-specific information, said report editor Kristen Crossett of the National Ocean Service.

Coastal population growth is actually increasing at a slightly slower rate than the national average of 10 percent. But because so much of the population, 39 percent, already lives in coastal shoreline counties, any increase has a big effect, Crossett added.

"The trend that is continuing is that the density of the coast continues to increase," she said.

In 2010, the last year the report has data for, the density of coastal shoreline counties was 446 people per square mile, and for coastal watershed counties it was 319 people per square mile. In contrast, the country as a whole had a population density of 105 people per square mile.

Buyers flock to storm-hit areas

The report also calculates projected coastal county growth rates from 1980 to 2020. The county with the highest percent growth over that period is Flagler County in Florida, with a whopping 1,038 percent growth rate. (Its growth rate from 2000 to 2010 was 92 percent.)

Carl Laundrie, the communications manager for Flagler County, says that although the county did see its share of foreclosures and high unemployment after the housing bubble popped, he sees home sales and growth picking up again.

"People love Flagler County. They come to it because of the proximity to the beach. We have 5 miles of beachfront," Laundrie said.

Yet while it earns the honors of fastest-growing county, Flagler's density of 197 people per square mile just doesn't compare with some parts of California or the Jersey Shore. And that density is what the authors of the population report are most concerned about.

For example, although Monmouth County, N.J., has a projected growth rate of 32 percent from 1980 to 2020, much lower than Flagler's, each new inhabitant adds to its already dense population of 1,344 people per square mile.

And the threat of another disaster like Superstorm Sandy, which hit Monmouth County hard, is not slowing down those looking to buy homes near the shore, according to John Meechan, general sales manager at Diane Turton Realtors, a large real estate firm on the Jersey Shore with 16 offices around the coast.

Meechan said he's seeing some of the strongest home sales in years, spurred by low interest rates.

"People are asking questions about where was it flooded, but the Jersey Shore definitely has not been stigmatized into a place that is bad," he said.