VINEYARD — Not long after making a down payment on a home with expansive views of Utah Lake and only a few neighbors, Julie Fullmer returned from a trip abroad and could not find her way to her house.
"I was driving around and had no idea where I was going," Fullmer recalled Wednesday. Dozens of homes had popped up around hers in the six months she spent in Asia. "I couldn't see the lake at all. It was instantly built out."
Eight years after she finally found her driveway, Vineyard continues to grow so quickly that it is almost unrecognizable from just half a year earlier. It is the fastest-growing community of more than 1,000 in the nation, new census figures suggest, and Fullmer, now its mayor, is working to make sure it can handle the rush of newcomers.
Vineyard is a small piece of Utah's rapid housing and population growth detailed in figures released late Wednesday from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data show the Beehive State continues to build homes faster than any other state, at a rate of about 2.2 percent for 2017-2018.
"This growth is pretty unrelenting" in Utah, said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Even so, Perlich considers the expansion sustainable, she said, and does not classify it as a boom. Growth in the national housing stock also continues to tick up at 0.8 percent, the census data show.
The new Utah homes have cropped up mostly in clusters in Salt Lake and Utah counties, and also in southern Utah's Washington County, home to a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts, retirees and service workers, Perlich said. But they have not averted an affordable housing crunch.
The state's housing market has been among the hottest in the west for the past several years, driving up prices for homebuyers and renters, particularly along the Wasatch Front, according to James Wood, a senior fellow at the Gardner Institute who studies real estate trends. Last year, he notes, was exceptional. Home sales were brisk, while apartments and condos were being built at an all-time high — in no small part due to steady job growth in Utah.
“The employment growth brings people in and those people need housing units,” he said. “Consequently, we get demand for housing."
Among those drawn to Utah is Rebecca North, 25, who came to know the frenzied home market well. Her family recently settled into a Spanish Fork home in their $250,000 price range, but it was their sixth choice, North recounted Wednesday. The family made compromises, giving up their desires for a garage and a sprawling yard for their two kids.
Still, North said, "I do love our little home. We've got a good living space and room for us to grow." And the move is a relief after a period of renting and battling out college students for low-cost apartments in the area after relocating from Arizona.
"The sellers can just pick who they want," she said, "because there are so many offers."
About 20 minutes up the freeway, apartment seekers are also fueling much of the growth in Vineyard, said Fullmer, the mayor. A growing tech industry nearby, surging home prices in the Salt Lake Valley and a bigger student population at colleges like Utah Valley University in Orem are also playing a role. And those coming in include not just Utahns but others from out of state or from other countries, she added.
Formerly home to a tiny farming community and then to a Geneva Steel mill that opened in 1941, Vineyard has mushroomed after a developer bought 1,700 acres there about 15 years ago, began cleaning up the former mill site and built homes with the approval of state environmental regulators.
In 2013, when Jacob McHargue took a job with the city, it had 400 residents.
"It's been crazy times since then," McHargue, now city manager, said Wednesday. In the year leading up to 2018, its population ballooned more than 60 percent to a total of more than 10,000, according to the estimates.
Through its own analysis, the city believes it is home to a current 15,000, McHargue said, with many living in new high-rise buildings and town homes bordering I-15. A movie theater and an ice cream shop have also moved in.
To accommodate the growth, the city is planning for an overpass that will connect Vineyard residents to Orem, another highway exit out of the city and a Frontrunner train stop to open in late 2020, plus a new water tower and other projects.
“You’re about to see the face of Vineyard’s landscape drastically change," Fullmer said. A redevelopment agency with a budget of $8.5 million collected from tax revenue has helped fuel construction, but the city has also had to exercise restraint. It has not ponied up to create its own police department just yet, the mayor noted.
Just two decades ago, "most people didn't even know Vineyard existed, they just figured it was part of Orem," added Stewart Park, project manager for the project atop the former steel mill site, dubbed @Geneva. Now, he said, "We're building a city down there." No other plot along Utah County's urban corridor was as empty and ripe for rapid development, so the fast-paced growth makes sense, he said.
Fullmer, for her part, said she wasn't discouraged to return home several years ago to find a city growing around her country home. Instead, she threw a block party. Hundreds attended.
“I knew the area would grow out," she said. "I didn’t expect to be alone forever.”
• The data also shows the Beehive State added about 24,000 new apartments, houses and other dwellings from 2017-2018, bringing the total number of homes to about 1.08 million. In a longer view dating back to the 2010 census, Utah falls to 2nd place, at about 13 percent growth, trailing North Dakota's roughly 19 percent.
• The new data largely confirm the state projections calculated by Perlich's team of researchers, but with a few differences. For example, the national numbers may have undershot growth in Salt Lake City in the latest figures and overblown the expansion this year, because the Census Bureau typically assumes apartments will be built within six months. But the process generally takes longer in Utah, said Perlich, whose work helps watchdog the Census Bureau's work.