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Md. transplants seen as helping to drive growth of York County, Pa.

Census data, 'white-taggers,' business opportunities signal trend, but some question its sustainability

By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

11:07 PM EDT, March 21, 2011

YORK, Pa. —

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Former Baltimorean Greg Wise, who moved to York eight years ago to be closer to his aging parents, says he can easily identify new Maryland transplants who have joined him in the northern migration just across the Pennsylvania line.

They're called "white-taggers," he said, because they have yet to change over to Pennsylvania license plates. He estimates that about one-fourth of those commuting south on Interstate 83 with him every morning still have Maryland tags.

Long considered a Baltimore exurb, York County has seen its population swell 14 percent since 2000. The southern Pennsylvania county — a mix of urban, suburban and rural geography and home to many Baltimore-area commuters — grew faster than Maryland as a whole and twice as rapidly as Baltimore County in that time, according to new population figures from the 2010 census.

York's rise has many implications. Its population growth outpaced the rest of Pennsylvania as well, giving it more influence in the Legislature even as the state is expected to lose a seat in Congress. The addition of more people — 53,000 more — also means increasing racial diversity because many new residents are minorities. Some residents even note an influx of young professionals.

And as has been the case for years, York's gain can be Maryland's loss.York County's public transportation system, dubbed rabbittransit, expanded its I-83 South commuter bus service last week to Towson.

"I definitely get the feeling especially southern York County has become an extension of Baltimore County," said Wise, who drives each day to a job at Digital Harbor High School in South Baltimore.

Another way to ferret out a former Baltimorean in York, he adds: They still tend to socialize on their front steps even after they have gained a spacious, suburban rear lawn.

Marylanders have flocked to York for its bucolic setting and cheaper homes. About seven years ago, Nicole Russell, at the time a real estate agent in Maryland, noticed many of her newest clients were selling their homes to settle in the tiny townships that make up York County.

"I started losing business in Maryland because I wasn't licensed in Pennsylvania," Russell said.

When she and her husband, a Baltimore County police officer, decided to move from Northeast Baltimore to southern York County in 2006, the seeds of a new business had been planted. Years of research on the best schools and neighborhoods in the county persuaded her family to make the move, and Russell figured other Maryland transplants could use help in the transition.

"I've been able to make a business doing that because there are so many people going from Baltimore to York," Russell said.

The southern part of York County showed particularly strong growth in the past decade. And some of the fastest-growing areas there — including Loganville, Jacobus and Springfield Township — are known as favorite spots for Maryland transplants.

"The previous census told us the same thing," said Eric Menzer, chairman of the York County Community Foundation and a longtime developer in the city of York. "This now marks 20 years of rapid growth, which of course really started with the migration of the South."

Donna Sites, an agent with Southern Penn Real Estate in York and herself a former Maryland resident, said the attraction is the strong reputation of York schools and "substantially lower" cost of living. Sites, who came to the Loganville area from Glen Burnie, said that for the price she paid for a new house on three acres in York County, she would have been able to afford only an older Maryland home in need of extensive renovation.

"For a while, probably 80 percent of my clients were from Maryland," she said.

Russell, 44, said just two of more than 50 families living in her neighborhood are York County natives. The rest, she said, hail from Baltimore and its surrounding counties, and some of her neighbors commute as far south as Washington or Northern Virginia for work.

Her family also is one of two black families in her neighborhood, Russell said, and her children's schools are nearly all white. For all her preparation, she found herself unprepared for the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in wider York County.

While the numbers are minuscule compared with the Baltimore region, nearly every small township surrounding the city of York saw minority populations jump. Still, nearly 90 percent of county residents are white. In Jacobus, for instance, the Hispanic population has grown more than 2,000 percent since 2000 — to a grand total of 65 residents.

But in a place where some residents say it is not uncommon to see Confederate flags, even the modest demographic changes have caused some uneasiness. York was also the site of a deadly race riot in 1969, a scar that has taken decades to fade.

The city of York, which recently elected its first black mayor, remains by far the county's most diverse and populous municipality. One-quarter of its residents are black, and 28 percent are Hispanic. The white, non-Hispanic population has dropped by one-fifth in the past 10 years, making whites a minority there. The city has grown 7 percent since 2000, to about 44,000 people.

Meagan Feeser, 29, commutes to a job in Owings Mills from her home in Spry in southern York County. Though the city of York has a reputation for crime and poor schools, Feeser said, there has been a resurgence of interest among young professionals. A group calling itself "I Love York City," with which Feeser is involved, has launched a marketing campaign with social media and merchandise to share recommendations for things to do in downtown York.

"There are a group of young people who do live downtown, who made the decision that they want to be a part of this," Feeser said.

William Swartz, a developer and property manager in downtown York, said former Marylanders do not hold the same stereotypes about urban areas that some native York County residents do and may help to further drive growth. "These people do not have that stigma against the city," Swartz said.

But some say the sheen of York living may lose some of its luster for Maryland residents. Property values dropped substantially in the Baltimore metro area after the housing bust, and rising gas prices might make a Baltimore-York commute too expensive for some.

And residents say stark differences remain between York County and the neighborhoods that Marylanders left behind. Grocery stores and other retail options, though expanding, still cannot compare to what is available in Baltimore's older, more established suburbs, said Brandon Jones, who owns Southern Penn Real Estate.

"If you're the person who's used to going to Towson Town Center, you don't have that here," he said.

The migration to York from Maryland appears to have slowed in recent years, observers say. Now, only about one-third of Sites' clients are moving from Maryland, she said. She often finds that her clients maintain their connections to Maryland, refusing to attend church in Pennsylvania or to switch hairstylists, for example.

"A lot of them still have deep ties to Maryland," Jones said. "Some people don't make that transition."

Russell, for one, plans to move back to the Baltimore area as soon as her children graduate from high school. And she said she has expanded her business into a new niche in the last two years: helping clients move from York back to the Baltimore area, primarily after foreclosures or divorce force them to move.

Menzer said York's growth likely won't continue to primarily depend on Maryland transplants. He hopes the next census shows more growth in the county's older communities and expects former Marylanders to begin to take jobs in new businesses in the York area.

"What we want is smart, controlled growth that's a net contributor to our overall economy in a sustainable way," Menzer said, "not just residential growth in that we become more and more of a bedroom community to Baltimore."

jtorbati@baltsun.com

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