New population data: IW is 7th fastest growing county in Virginia

Published 12:51 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Isle of Wight County’s population has increased 4% over the past two years, making it the seventh fastest-growing county in Virginia, according to census data.

Meanwhile, sparsely populated Surry County has continued its decades-long population decline, dropping another 0.5% over the same two years.

The 2020 Census listed Isle of Wight’s population at 38,606. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released estimates for 2022, which list the county’s population at 40,151.

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Isle of Wight’s population grew by 3,336 people, or 9.5%, from 2010 to 2020. It’s taken one-fifth of that time for the county to gain nearly half as many new residents, despite an above-average number of deaths since 2020 likely linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This new census data highlights that Isle of Wight is increasingly a community of choice for living in our region, and the continuation of a lengthy upward trend over the last couple of decades,” said Isle of Wight Economic Development Director Chris Morello. “It’s clearly good news for our local businesses providing goods and services to our growing population of residents.”

According to Virginia Department of Health and census data, the annual number of deaths in Isle of Wight exceeded the number of births from 2016 through 2022. From 2010 through 2019, Isle of Wight averaged 345 births and 346 deaths annually. In 2020, Isle of Wight saw 423 deaths, or 9.8% above its pre-pandemic average, followed by 442 deaths in 2021 and 535 deaths in 2022. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Isle of Wight has seen over 120 coronavirus-linked deaths from the start of 2020 through March 9 of this year.

Census data reports Isle of Wight’s April 1, 2020, through July 1, 2022, net migration at 1,704. The figure measures the number of people who moved into the county, minus those who moved out. Of the 1,704 net move-ins, 1,576 were domestic and 128 were international.

Including cities, and not just counties, Isle of Wight is the ninth fastest growing locality in the state. Only the cities of Suffolk, at 4.4%, and Radford, at 4.1%, reported higher rates of growth than Isle of Wight. Some of Virginia’s major cities, among them Newport News and Norfolk, showed declines of 1% to 2%.

A small percentage of Isle of Wight’s growth can be attributed directly to a 2020 change in state law, which required the 2021 legislative redistricting process count incarcerated Virginians as residents of their home localities rather than residents of the county or city where their prison is located. The change increased the 2020 total by 189 people, or just under 0.5%, as of 2021.

Migrations out of Newport News and Norfolk, both of which are less than an hour’s drive from Isle of Wight, are likely among the more notable factors driving Isle of Wight’s population boom, according to Smithfield-area Realtor Jay Hassell.

During the early days of the pandemic when Virginia and other state governments issued stay-at-home orders, people from congested cities who were able to work from home went “looking for an escape,” Hassell said.

Over the past three years, he’s seen an increase in people coming to the county not only from nearby cities like Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News but from the states of New Jersey, New York and even California, looking for a lower cost of living and fewer neighbors.

Isle of Wight’s aging population, Hassell speculated, could also be driving a boom in new housing developments that has far outpaced housing growth statewide.

As of the 2020 Census, the number of housing units in Isle of Wight had increased 12.4% since 2010, compared to the state’s 7.6% growth rate.

The 2020 Census reports as of that year 19.8% of Isle of Wight’s population was age 65 or older. Citing census data, a Dec. 8, 2022, senior citizen-focused addition to Isle of Wight’s “Envisioning the Isle” comprehensive plan estimates that by 2030, the United States will reach a demographic turning point when one in every five Americans will be of retirement age. By 2034, older adults are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history.

With an aging population comes an increase in homes and family-owned farms that have historically been passed down through generations, but are now entering the market, Hassell said, as a means of facilitating their current owners’ retirement plans. This drives the opportunity for larger housing developments and those seeking out “fixer-uppers.”

“Although some thought these properties would never be sold, now they are being sold at a premium,” Hassell said.

Other planned developments that stalled during the 2007-2009 Great Recession and its aftermath have only recently broken ground. The 776-home Benns Grant development, located on Benns Church Boulevard, was first approved in 2009 and authorized to expand in 2018. It’s still under construction, as is Smithfield’s 450-home Cypress Creek development, which has been in the works since 1986 and received the town’s approval in 2022 to build out its sixth and final phase.

Also in the works are the 812-home Mallory Pointe development Smithfield’s Town Council approved in 2021 for the former Mallory Scott Farm along Battery Park Road, the 340-home, age-restricted South Harbor development in Carrollton, and The Crossings, a commercial and residential development, also in Carrollton, that will include 240 condominiums and 52 single-family homes.

An additional 615 homes are proposed for the “Sweetgrass” development planned just outside Smithfield’s southern border, and another 304 homes would comprise the “Grange at 10Main” development proposed for the western edge of the town’s historic district, though neither development has received the required approvals to date.

Isle of Wight’s proximity to seven military bases may also be driving some of the housing demand, and associated population influx.

“Approximately 13,000 locally-stationed active-duty members leave their respective service each year,” Hassell said. “Our real estate team has seen an increase in the number of military veterans choose Isle of Wight as their home.”

In 2018, a consultant for Isle of Wight County Schools published a study forecasting an additional 900 school-age children would enter the school system over the next 13 years. School administrators at the time estimated just over 300 would arrive by 2022. The estimate proved overly generous. Isle of Wight’s enrollment, which had fluctuated between 5,500 and 5,600 students in 2019 and prior, fell to just over 5,400 in 2021, likely due to parents opting to keep their children home at the height of the pandemic, then rebounded to 5,619 at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Superintendent Theo Cramer, as of this March, was estimating 5,667 students for the 2023-24 school year, which would reflect a roughly 160-student, or 3%, increase over the roughly 5,500 enrolled in 2018.

Surry County, which reported 6,561 residents as of 2020, had lost another 34 residents, or 0.5%, as of 2022, according to the recently released census data.

The census data lists 143 Surry births and 209 deaths, for a net loss of 66 residents over two years, coupled with net migration at 31. The net migration figure includes 32 new domestic residents, minus one international resident who moved away.

The rural county has been declining in population since at least 2000, though a first-in-the-nation “Green Energy Center” touting more than 2,000 new jobs could go a long way toward reversing the trend. Middleburg-based Green Energy Partners LLC and county officials announced plans for the data center on April 12, which – pending approval by county supervisors – is to be built on 641 acres adjacent to Dominion Energy’s Surry nuclear power plant within the next 18 months. The data center, which would lease server space to 30 to 40 companies, is to eventually be powered by four to six on-site small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs.

Editor’s note: This story is updated to clarify conflicting enrollment data for Isle of Wight County at the start of the 2019-20 school year.