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Density is a relative term

Counties range from sparsely populated to packed with people

Want elbow room? Go to southern Utah's Garfield County, where each person has about a mile of it.

The county of 4,735 has fewer than one resident per square mile of land, according to figures from the 2000 Census, released Wednesday. It is the least dense area in the state in terms of resident population, which has its drawbacks, as well as benefits.

"There are advantages," resident D'Lynn Poll said. "They aren't redoing our freeway like they are up there."

Poll, who lives in the county seat of Panguitch, says Garfield County is a place where people work hard and are mostly content. It's home to some of Utah's most scenic spots, including Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and parts of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and residents enjoy breathing pollution-free air.

But there are disadvantages to living in the most rural county in Utah.

"We must like it because we do sacrifice to live in rural Utah," Poll said. "There's things we do without. I'm 70 miles from the nearest 7-Eleven."

Poll, business administrator for the Garfield County School District, has the daunting task of keeping schools running in a sparsely populated county where school supplies are often cut to pay for high transportation costs.

The district puts tens of thousands of miles on its buses yearly, and new buses run $80,000.

"It's very hard and very expensive," Poll said.

Take, for instance, high school students in Boulder. The nearest high school is 35 miles away across treacherous mountain road in Escalante. The two-lane thoroughfare takes a good hour to navigate by bus, and kids who play sports board the bus at 6:30 a.m. and arrive home at 7 p.m.

From Escalante, it's two hours to the nearest movie theater or bowling alley.

Still, the small, rural county grew at a rate comparable to more urban counties, with a 19 percent increase in the past 10 years. Salt Lake County grew 23.8 percent.

Not surprising, Salt Lake County is the most dense county in Utah, with 1,218 residents per square mile. The county is home to unincorporated Kearns, the most dense area in the state, with 6,994 people per square mile.

The reason for the huge gap between areas of less than one person per square mile and 7,000 people per square mile has a lot to do with Utah's geographic makeup.

"The state of Utah in general is a very urbanized state. The largest portion of our population lives in urban areas, with a lot of the land unoccupied," says Neil Ashdown, state director of demographic and economic analysis.

Western states with similar geography, however, don't have the same saturation in the larger counties that is seen in Utah. In Wyoming, the state's most dense county is Yellowstone, with 49 people per square mile. In Nevada, the largest concentration is 366 people per square mile. Comparatively, New York's New York County has 66,940 residents per square mile.

In the past decade, Utah as a whole experienced a surge in its population, growing almost 30 percent. That growth came in urban and rural areas alike, although there's a trend for more growth in large counties adjacent to Salt Lake.

People are flocking to less-urban areas that are still within commuting distance of Salt Lake primarily because of the low cost of living and for an escape from city life, Ashdown says.

"It's outgrowth spreading from Salt Lake City," he said. "Even though (Salt Lake) grew, it didn't grow at the rate of the state average."

Tooele, Iron and Washington counties saw increases of more than 50 percent.

Tooele city experienced significant growth in the past 10 years because of cheap land, master-planned communities such as Overlake on the city's north side and the desire for a more rural setting. Overlake, billed as an inexpensive, quiet community, is expected to account for 20 percent of the community's population when the project is complete.

Three years ago, when Michael Maloy was a renter living in Bountiful and wanted to buy his first home, the only areas in Salt Lake that were within his budget were far south or far north.

"One of the major factors when buying a home is what you can afford. We were looking at the extreme ends of the valley," he said.

Maloy, who is the city planner for Taylorsville, eventually found a place for his family in Tooele.

"The initial pull was that it was within my price range and good quality. Not only was it newer, but because the property is cheaper, I think the developer can put more money into the actual home," he says.

Since moving there he says he enjoys passing by the Great Salt Lake every day during his commute, and, like residents in Garfield County, he has noticed that the air is cleaner.

The tide may be turning, though, as the city of 22,502 known as a bedroom community is beginning to attract commercial and industrial developers. Tooele Mayor Charlie Roberts predicts 3-5 percent growth for the next several years, compared to 7 percent last year.

In the past decade, Salt Lake City experienced its first real growth in almost half a century. In terms of actual numbers, it gained the most population. At the same time, however, it lost in terms of its share of the state's population, going from 42.1 percent to 40.2 percent, while other counties nearly doubled their shares.

"It's just more evening out," Ashdown says.

Washington County, which includes St. George and has 37 residents per square mile, had an 86 percent change in population, which may have been outgrowth from neighboring Nevada, which was the fastest-growing state in the nation, Ashdown says.

"Washington is really fast-growing in terms of the population share," he said. "It's had very explosive employment, and the weather's so nice."

Summit County, which at 92 percent was the No. 1 county in terms of growth in the past decade, had a smaller population to start out with, Ashdown says. With 29,736 residents, it has a density of 16 residents per square mile. The economy there is booming, and preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics are also drawing people.

Contributing: Stephen Speckman, Brady Snyder.