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Sonoma County surpassed a half-million residents for the first time last year, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data that shows population growth is accelerating again after a decade of anemic expansion.

The increase is driven by young families having children and an influx of new residents, largely from other parts of the United States, who are being drawn to the county by its strengthening economy, according to analysts.

Overall, the county’s population increased by an estimated 4,860 people last year. The county gained 3,600 more people than it lost to migration, the Census Bureau estimated, reversing the outflow of people who moved away from Sonoma County during the recession. Nearly three-fourths of the newcomers were from other parts of the United States; only one in four were from a foreign country.

Births accounted for the remaining growth. The Census Bureau reported 5,196 children were born in Sonoma County last year, more than offsetting the 4,115 deaths recorded in the county.

“Net migration is starting to pick up a bit as well as the natural increase in the population,” said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Los Angeles- based Beacon Economics.

Thornberg said the trend is to some degree tied to the current improvement in the economy, which gives rise to both more babies and inward migration.

“When you think about population growth, there two major drivers — net migration and natural increase,” said Thornberg, adding that when the economy does poorly and unemployment rises, the natural increase slows down and people move out of the area in search of jobs.

The opposite takes place when the economy improves.

In 2014, there were approximately 500,292 residents living in the county. The milestone, along with the uptick in the growth rate, is a sign that Sonoma County has to some degree crawled its way out of the Great Recession, analysts said.

“Sonoma County lost a lot of population in first decade of the millennium,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Overall, the county added 25,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, the slowest period of growth since before World War II. The postwar expansion and the arrival of the baby boom generation triggered a period of dramatic growth that quadrupled the number of residents living in Sonoma County in just five decades. The county added 44,000 residents in the 1950s, 58,000 in the 1960s, 95,000 in the 1970s, 89,000 in the 1980s and 70,000 in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

After a slowdown during the Great Recession of the 2000s, the county’s population is growing again. Since 2010 alone, the county has added 16,400 residents, and growth is accelerating. Population increased 0.6 percent annually in 2011 and 2012, but then began growing 1 percent annually in 2013 and 2014.

Job losses drove many away during the late 2000s. The local economy shed 31,300 jobs between 2007 and 2010, according to the state Employment Development Department. But since then, local employers have replaced nearly all the jobs that were lost during the recession, drawing people back to the county.

“Over time we’re able to absorb that growth pretty well,” Stone said.

While the unemployment rate is a dominant factor when workers decide whether to stay in a community or leave, housing prices can also have a major impact on migration flows. Home prices are high in California, compared to other parts of the country, putting a damper on population growth, Thornberg said.

Juan Nieto, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa, said he’s encountered a wide spectrum of newcomers buying property in Sonoma County in recent years. The strong economy and stratospheric housing prices in the Bay Area, particularly Silicon Valley and San Francisco, are pushing people further north.

“People are looking at Sonoma County for second homes or they’re looking at the value. Prices are substantially lower (in Sonoma County) than in Silicon Valley or San Francisco,” Nieto said.

Nieto said Sonoma County continues to draw retirees, or those planning to retire in the near future, from the Bay Area. Others are selling their homes in San Francisco, cashing in after a sharp increase in prices, he said.

“There are people who have homes in San Francisco and have sold those homes and are looking at higher-end homes,” he said. “I don’t get a sense that it’s just one group that’s driving migration in.”

At a half-million residents, the county is the 17th largest in the state. Los Angeles and San Diego counties, with 10.1 million and 3.3 million people respectively, have the largest populations.

In Lake County, population increased by 341 people to 64,184 in 2014 but still remains below 2010 levels, when 64,757 people lived in the county.

In Mendocino County, population increased by 398 people to an estimated 87,869 people. It is virtually unchanged from 2010, when 87,840 people lived in the county.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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