MIDDLEBOROUGH - When they bought their brand-new home last year, the Pignets didn’t know they were joining a parade. They chose Middleborough because of the house, which was spotless and located in a 55-and-over complex in their price range, and situated between Boston, Providence, and Cape Cod.
Lots of other folks, it turned out, had the same idea. The Pignets became part of a little population boom in Middleborough, which grew by 16 percent over the last decade, one of the fastest growths south of Boston. A handful of other communities, including Hingham, Raynham, and Rochester, also added residents at double-digit rates, according to the latest Census data.
Unlike most people who move into age-restricted housing, Doug and Diane Pignet were upsizing, not downsizing. Married in 2004, they met online as cribbage buddies two years earlier. When Doug, a lifelong city dweller from Los Angeles, came east to be with Diane, they settled into her 900-square-foot townhouse in Halifax.
Before long, they wanted more room. In the new house they have 1,600 square feet, and Diane can still commute to her full-time job at a private psychiatric hospital in Brookline.
“This was just a godsend to us,’’ said Doug Pignet. He likes being in a place rural enough that he sees deer and turkeys, yet with quick access to major highways. “It’s close to the city, yet it’s far enough away,’’ he said.
Figures from the 2010 Census show most communities south of Boston gained population over the last 10 years. Communities with the biggest increases tended to have significant new development and good access to trains or highways.
Middleborough Selectman Alfred Rullo Jr. attributed his town’s population increse to the construction of Oak Point, the 55-and-over housing development to which the Pignets moved last year. It can’t account for the entire increase, but Oak Point has grown in phases to about 865 homes since the late 1990s.
“That has been a very positive addition to the town,’’ due in part to Oak Point residents’ willingness to volunteer for community projects, he said.
New commuter train service from Boston to the Lakeville-Middleborough town line, also built in the 1990s, appears to have had a continued effect on surrounding communities, according to Michael Kryzanek, professor of political science at Bridgewater State University. Lakeville’s population grew by 8 percent since 2000, while nearby Raynham grew 14 percent.
To the south, the mostly rural town of Rochester grew 14 percent, while closer to Boston, Hingham grew 11 percent.
Hingham’s waterfront and manageable commute to Boston have long made it a popular suburb. Helen Scoville, who moved to Hingham from Boston in 2009, said the town has a lot going for it, including a nice downtown area and great restaurants and parks. She and her husband, Josh Scoville, started looking for a house in the suburbs because they needed space for a growing family.
Josh grew up in Hull and wanted to be near the water, something they both enjoy. And Helen wanted their daughter, Adelie, born just before the move, to be able to attend good public schools.
“I love it. There’s an awesome community here,’’ she said, adding that she feels safe and likes her neighbors. “I’m impressed by how many friends I’ve made here already.’’
To get to work in the financial district, Josh Scoville can take a commuter boat directly from the Hingham Shipyard to downtown Boston.
The shipyard has been redeveloped within the last five years into an upscale village of housing, restaurants, and retail. The town also saw significant new housing added with the Linden Ponds retirement community.
Ted Alexiades, Hingham town administrator, said redevelopment will continue to play an important role in the town’s evolution, because available land is scarce.
To the degree that transportation contributes to growth, Raynham and Middleborough have strong credentials: not just the train, but proximity to major highways. Kryzanek, the Bridgewater professor, said he knows a number of faculty members who live in Raynham because of its convenience.
On the business front, bustling Route 44 in Raynham has had new office buildings rise in the past decade, along with new retail stores, such as Lowe’s, which opened in 2005. And in Middleborough, the Christmas Tree Shops distribution center was expanded, adding 500,000 square feet of space to the existing 250,000, according to Lisa Nickerson, senior director of marketing and business development for the Campanelli Companies, owner of the business park.
Sager Electronics and Idex Health & Science also have opened in the park since 2000, she said; proximity to Interstate 495 has made the location work.
But the expanding businesses, and even the jobs, may not be major factors in the population increase, according to Kryzanek.
“From my experience of going up [Route] 24 in the morning,’’ he said, “they’re not heading toward Raynham and Middleborough. They’re heading to the major metropolitan area.’’
Transportation, housing, and larger parcels of land tend to influence decisions about where people move, he said. The quality of the schools factors into the equation for many prospective residents, but not all, since not all of them have children.
People look at crime statistics as well. They move to less-developed suburbs and rural communities from Boston, from smaller cities, or from high-priced suburbs “to get that dream house with an acre of land in a relatively safe community,’’ Kryzanek said. “They’re not coming because there’s a job around the corner.’’
In Rochester, population 5,232, Town Administrator Richard LaCamera pointed to the town’s rural character and its “great’’ school system, which shares junior high and high schools with Marion and Mattapoisett. The Middleborough-Lakeville commuter rail station also draws people to Rochester, he said, because they can take a short drive to the train and commute to Boston.
“There are a lot of young families,’’ said LaCamera. They move into single-family homes, which make up virtually all new construction in the town. About 35 new homes were built each year shortly before the recession - a significant number, LaCamera said, for a town the size of Rochester - but the number has dropped to seven to 10.
When a town grows quickly, some residents see a downside. Jennifer Sypher, who lives in Raynham and works as an administrative assistant in the building department, doesn’t like the traffic.
“I find that it’s grown tremendously, and it’s too big for me now,’’ she said.
But not every town is growing. At least seven communities south of Boston lost population, including Avon, Brockton, Hull, Marion, Mattapoisett, Rockland, and Stoughton.
Marion slipped below 5,000, a change that Town Administrator Paul F. Dawson said could alter the town’s ability to win grant money.
“Sometimes the higher the population, the higher the grant you can receive,’’ he said.
Marion has not experienced as much new development as neighboring Rochester, and existing homes can be expensive.
“We do see a trend that young people, and young couples starting out, do have a difficult time buying homes here in Marion,’’ Dawson said. “We do have a lot of homes that are affordable, but also many that are not.’’
Housing costs have been an issue for on-call firefighters and emergency medical technicians in Marion. People moving to town tend not to do that work, Dawson said, so an increasing number of first responders live outside of town. If an EMT gets a call at home in Wareham in the middle of the night and has to report to the station in Marion, it increases the response time. The town is looking for ways to make living in Marion more affordable for them, he said.
Loss of population happens for many reasons, depending on a community’s individual dynamics. Kryzanek said cost of living, including taxes, might be an issue in a town like Marion, whereas in Brockton, which lost 1 percent of its population, reputation could be the problem.
“It’s an area that has gotten not-very-good publicity over the last number of years,’’ said Kryzanek, who lives in neighboring Whitman. The city of Brockton has good schools, he said, but white residents are leaving. Census data show the city lost 27 percent of its non-Hispanic white population since 2000. “There is a good deal of white flight going on there,’’ he said. “People in their 50s and 60s are moving out after they educate their kids.’’
Some communities where the Census shows a lower population question the accuracy of the count. Both Marion and Hull are checking the Census data against local records.
“We’re not seeing a drop in registered vehicles or voter registration,’’ said Phil Lemnios, town manager in Hull. He said the US Census Bureau could have trouble counting the seaside community’s part-time residents.
Jennette Barnes Boston Globe July 3, 2011