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Napa County's population continues to shrink

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Napa County and most of its cities continue to shrink in population.

The county as a whole fell from 137,518 residents to 136,179 last year, or by 1%, the state Department of Finance reported this week. That compares to the estimate of 141,649 residents in 2016.

The city of Napa's population fell from 78,246 to 77,480, or by 1%. Calistoga's fell by 1.6%, St. Helena's 1.5% and Yountville's 3.8%.

Only American Canyon saw an increase, but it wasn’t a boom. The city’s population rose from 21,566 to 21,658, or by 0.4%.

For a county that mostly saw population growth — often big growth — from pioneer days to 2016, recent years have been a turnaround. The question is why.

One can look to the bigger picture for possible answers. California’s population fell by 117,552 residents, to 39.1 million. The state Department of Finance in a press release gave several reasons.

There is a continuing slowdown in natural increase — births minus deaths — as Baby Boomers age and younger generations have fewer children. COVID-19 led to deaths and immigration restrictions. The number of people leaving for other states increased.

Napa County Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said he didn’t have any county-specific data to explain the local decline. But he had some ideas.

“The number of vacation and second homes may be a contributing factor, as those owners would be counted where their primary residence is located,” he said.

Household size may be decreasing, with families aging and adult children moving away, Morrison said. Some families may have chosen not to rebuild after the 2017 and 2020 wildfires and instead relocated.

“As this is a relatively recent trend, we will have to wait until there is reliable and adequate data to be able to provide solid answers,” Morrison said.

American Canyon has long been a local growth hot spot and that may resume. The south Napa County city along Highway 29 recently approved a few hundred homes to be built in such places as its planned Watson Ranch community and on Oat Hill.

“The housing development is getting a lot of traction,” Mayor Leon Garcia said.

American Canyon has a point of distinction in the state's latest population data. It ranked third percentagewise in multi-family housing unit growth at 38.59%.

Building workforce housing means less people have to commute, which leads to less traffic, Garcia said.

In Napa County as a whole, the dip in population hasn’t changed the dynamics of the local housing market in ways positive to prospective buyers. Zillow report the typical county home price in March topped $900,000, a one-year increase of 15%.

Meanwhile, the county and its cities under a state mandate must seek to have a total of 3,844 houses built over the next eight years. A shrinking county must still add homes.

Napa County has plenty of company in its population decline. Thirty-four of the state’s 58 counties had the same experience. Plumas County had the largest percentage decline at 3.2%. Napa County’s 1%-drop was fifth.

Yolo County had the biggest percentage population gain at 1.8%. The state attributed this to an increase in dorms for the University of California, Davis.

Population forecasters predict Napa County will grow in coming decades, but more slowly than the rest of the region.

Last year’s Plan Bay Area 2050 has the county adding 5,000 households between 2015 and 2050, by far the smallest amount among the nine Bay Area counties. The next smallest is Sonoma County and it is predicted to add 32,000 households.

Plan Bay Area 2050 was produced by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments.

As much as 90% of the central and western United States is currently experiencing drought conditions with little relief expected in the near future.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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