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For Jefferson County, the census giveth, the census taketh away

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Jefferson County is the fastest growing county in the state, percentage-wise, according to estimates released Friday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The estimates, which are based on a study of administrative records instead of the exhaustive canvassing methods employed during the decennial census, say that the population here has grown from 116,229 in 2010 to more than 120,000 in 2012.

That continuing growth is no doubt a boon for the north country, but the increasing population has brought some of the concerns of a bigger city to an area that traditionally has thought of itself as being primarily rural in nature.

In October, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the greater Watertown area, which includes parts of Dexter, LeRay and Carthage, an urbanized area with a population of 57,840.

While that designation may bring increased opportunities for funding, it also has unleashed a series of administrative requirements that have caused public officials no small amount of confusion and consternation over the last few months as they’ve struggled to make sense of a slew of new acronyms, including MPO, MSA and MS4.

At a General Services Committee meeting last week, county legislators voted to approve membership in a federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, which will coordinate federally funded highway, bridge and transportation initiatives in the new urbanized area. The Watertown City Council still is deliberating on the agreement and is scheduled to vote on it March 26 during a special meeting with a Department of Transportation representative. The agreement must be passed by then before being signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or officials risk putting federal highway funds in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, planners and municipal representatives have been trying to wrap their heads around separate municipal storm sewer system, or MS4, permits, which are required in the urbanized area by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency and could have a huge financial impact, especially in smaller municipalities that border the urbanized area who don’t have engineers on staff to ensure compliance with the new regulations.

To that end, the MS4 permits may involve the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District, a state- and county-funded agency that helps farmers comply with environmental requirements. With a water quality technician on staff, the district is uniquely suited to help bring municipalities up to speed with the permits. That singular ability may help revive the district, which has fallen on hard times after its former executive director engaged in questionable financial tactics to stave off insolvency.

And the county as a whole is waiting to see if the White House Office of Management and Budget will declare it a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, which could have significant effects on how federal housing money is spent in the city of Watertown and its surrounding communities.

Despite the headaches, county officials are optimistic that the increasing population and the new designations will bring mostly good things.

“In the short term, there probably are some complications. There’s clearly going to be a learning curve over the next couple of years. ... But this is all good information. I view it as very, very positive,” said County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

“They are a more general indicator of population trends that can be used for planning and in determining whether we’re a growing community or not,” said County Planning Director Donald R. Canfield.

The estimates also provide fodder for the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, which uses the data to attract employers and retailers to the area.

“It’s one of the pieces of evidence we use to say to businesses that it’s good to be here,” said JCIDA CEO Donald C. Alexander. “It may not be the strongest evidence, but it’s important evidence nevertheless.”

The figures are used to show industrial and commercial enterprises that the workforce and talent pool of the area is increasing and that there are expanded commercial and cultural opportunities in the area.

The data also reflect a continuing trend of growth in the area that has been observed since 2004, when the Third Brigade Combat Team was created at Fort Drum, according to Mr. Canfield.

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