Once upon a time, we worried about growth.

Seriously — that's not just a fairy tale. There was a time not so long ago that "growth" polled as the top concern of many Sonoma County residents. Higher than "crime," higher than "traffic," higher than "the economy."

Today, of course, growth is the farthest thing from our minds. Population growth in California has slowed to less than 1 percent, and in Sonoma County to less than half a percent in the past year. Lake and Mendocino counties are slowly losing population. Housing construction, an industry that once was so hot it dominated debate in Sonoma County politics, has slowed to a trickle.

In 1994, when the population of Santa Rosa was about 125,000, the general plan estimated that population would grow to 174,500 by 2010.

This week, the state Department of Finance reported Santa Rosa's population at just short of 169,000.

Instead of worrying about growth, we worry about stagnation and recession, and even the dreaded "double-dip" recession.

It can make you nostalgic for those days of worrying about growth. It can make you wonder why growth was such a big deal.

But it was. And, in the boom-and-bust cycle that we've experienced historically (and depend on for the future), it probably will be a big deal again.

In the mid- and late-1980s, residential construction in Santa Rosa and most other Sonoma County cities was, literally, out of control. Homes, condominiums and apartments were sprouting like mustard in the vineyards, except the landscape was being carpeted with shingled rooftops instead of yellow blossoms.

Santa Rosa issued permits for 2,300 homes in both 1984 and 1985. Countywide, more than 6,000 permits were issued in 1985, mostly for multi-family units.

That was the peak, but even as growth pressures "cooled off" in the late &‘80s, numbers were still high. Nearly every city council in Sonoma County was discussing growth-control measures. Windsor established a ban on new subdivisions as it tried to catch its infrastructure up with the rapid growth it experienced in the late &‘80s. In 1992, Santa Rosa instituted a residential building cap of 1,000 units a year.

Of course, free-market economists would argue that all of the regulation was unnecessary, because recession slowed residential construction in the early &‘90s. In 1992, only 457 homes were built in Santa Rosa, which was a 20-year low at the time. In 1994 there were about 2,400 units built countywide, less than half of the 1985 peak.

With the recession of the last four years, the average number of residential construction permits issued in Sonoma County has been slightly more than 500 a year — less than a quarter of the yearly average for the previous 25 years.

Nobody talks about growth any more, unless it's to lament its absence. Construction and real estate are two key segments of the local economy, and when those segments are hurting, everyone feels the pain.

Apparently, though, the tide is starting to turn. The nearly 600 permits issued in Sonoma County last year was a slight uptick from 2010, which had seen a slight uptick from 2009. In Windsor this week, two developers were seeking approvals to turn property that had been slated for single-family-home development into apartment projects containing up to 725 units. Another project proposing 387 apartments already is in the pipeline in Windsor.

At Wednesday's meeting of the Windsor Town Council, residents turned out to oppose the glut of apartments, arguing that the spurt of construction would change the town's character.

Imagine that — debate about growth in Sonoma County.

Consider it a positive economic indicator.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.