North Carolina Sprawl


People in more populous countries and states look at North Carolina’s mountains, coastal plains, lower housing costs, and its bucolic farms, towns, and human-scale  cities — and they love what they see. They’ve been proving it for decades with convoys of moving vans entering North Carolina in numbers experienced in only a few states.

But this demonstration of love has its costs. To accommodate all the newcomers has meant diminishing and eliminating many of the attributes that drew people to move to the state in the first place, according to our study of the most recently available government land use data through 2017.

No. 3 Worst Sprawl in Nation
Only two states between 1982 and 2017 saw more loss than North Carolina’s 2.56 million acres. That was 3,995 square miles of additional natural habitat and agricultural land developed for an exploding population to live, work, play, shop, and be provided with public services like transportation, utilities, and waste disposal.
2.56 million 4.25 million New Residents GAINED Acres of Farmland and Nature LOST 1982-2017

Population Growth Biggest Factor in the Losses

+71% +22% Growth in developed land per person Growth in population 1982-2017

In any state, rural land is lost to development in order to handle two types of growth: 

(1) Per capita land consumption.
This type of growth takes into account the dozens of factors that affect how much land is developed on average for each resident to meet residential, commercial, employment, cultural, transportation and other needs. The average North Carolinian in 2017 required 22% more developed land than in 1982. That consumption growth was half again higher than per capita consumption growth in the nation as a whole.

(2)  Growth in the number of residents.
North Carolina’s population grew by 71% in that period. The 4.25 million additional residents ranked No. 5 of all states (1982-2017).



This pie chart does not depict the percentage of growth in each factor but the share of responsibility for the loss of rural land.

Per capita consumption:During the recent part of the study period (2002-2017), so-called Smart Growth efforts and other factors helped to actually reduce the amount of developed land for the average resident in many North Carolina counties, with much of the state’s population living in higher density. For the state as a whole, the average resident was using 9.2% less developed land in 2017 than in 2002. However, per capita land consumption in a number of counties still increased; that increase was responsible for 24% of the state’s rural land loss, our study calculated.

Population: Three-quarters of the clearing, scraping and paving of rural land for development in this more recent period was related to the continuing population growth which was the fourth highest in the nation (2002-2017).

76% 24% DUE TO POPULATION GROWTH: 76% of overall sprawl in NC was related to increasing the number of residents. DUE TO GROWTH IN PER CAPITA LAND CONSUMPTION: 24% of overall sprawl in NC was related to the increase in the amount of developed land for the average resident in several counties

Voters Want End To Rapid Population Growth

14% 50% 20% 11% 4% Continue to grow at recent rapid rate Grow much more slowly Stay about the same size as now Become smaller Not sure

Would you prefer that North Carolina’s population continue to grow at the recent rapid rate, that it grow much more slowly, that it stay about the same size as it is now, or that it become smaller?

Only 14% prefer to continue the rapid rate of the state’s population growth, according to a 2024 scientific survey of North Carolina’s “likely voters” conducted for this study. A combined total of 81% said they want to grow either “much more slowly” in the future (50%) or not at all (31%).

Sources of North Carolina Growth


The population growth causing most of the lost habitat and farmland has little to do with recent decisions of North Carolinians about family size. Their Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of births per woman has been below the “replacement level” of 2.1 since 2010, and below 1.8 TFR since 2016.


Decisions by Congress and other federal officials about immigration loom as the biggest single factor in the nation’s current population growth, accounting for nearly 90%.  National population growth trends have a direct and indirect effect on North Carolina.  

The DIRECT Immigration Effect 

Federal data show that about 25% of the state’s population growth from 1982 to 2017 was a direct result of post-1982 foreign immigration. 

Almost 1.1 million North Carolina residents in 2017 were either (1) foreign-born residents who had arrived in the U.S. after 1982, or (2) were  the U.S.-born children and grandchildren of post-1982 immigrants; none of them would be in the state — or country — except for federal immigration policies. 

(The “foreign-born” category includes residents who are legal immigrants, illegal border crossers and visa overstayers, and  temporary workers, students, asylum applicants, and longer-term tourists.)

The INDIRECT immigration effect 

Most of North Carolina’s population growth is due to net migration of people from other states, particularly ones with higher direct immigration, population growth, residential density, and cost of living than North Carolina — states like:

  1. New York
  2. Virginia
  3. Florida
  4. California

Those states provide the highest net additions of newcomers, according to the most recent data (2022) of people relocating into and out of North Carolina. In neighboring Virginia, the northern counties near the nation’s capital have among the highest cost of living and concentrations of foreign-born in the nation. The entirety of the state of California ranked No. 1 in percentage of foreign-born among its residents, while New York state was No. 3, and Florida was No. 4. (North Carolina ranks 24th.)


Voters Oppose Big Cities Spreading Out Over Towns & Other Cities

Do you prefer that North Carolina’s towns and small cities remain separated from each other and keep their own identity or does it not matter too much if they are absorbed by larger cities?

79% 14% 6% Prefer towns and small cities remain separate and with own identity It doesn’t much matter if they are absorbed by larger cities Not sure

Of the many concerns expressed by the majority of voters in the survey, the one embraced by the highest percentage was the way larger cities continue to sprawl out until they envelop surrounding towns and smaller cities.  A joint study by the Raleigh office of the U.S. Geological Survey and North Carolina State University projected that a continuation of recent growth patterns would create a continuous metropolitan area from Raleigh to Charlotte, and beyond, swallowing every existing town and small city along the way.  That megalopolis would rival the ones in southern California and on the Atlantic seaboard from Washington DC to Boston. That would be a major challenge to the quality-of-life and culture that most North Carolinians apparently hold dear.

Solutions Voters Support

The poll of North Carolinians also found considerable concern about the state’s wildlife, woodlands, prime cropland, worsening traffic, and their access to the “emotional or spiritual uplift” of spending time in nature.

Nearly all (82%) indicated that they want to at least slow down the destruction of habitat and farmland by either slowing down population growth or encouraging people to live in higher density. Of the 82%, 29 percentile said they prefer both solutions. Only 9% of those surveyed said they weren’t interested in either type of solution.

38% 15% 29% 9% 9% Slow down population growth Encourage people to live at higher density Both lower population growth and higher density Neither higher density nor lower population growth Not sure

Which would you prefer as a way to protect farmland and natural habitats in North Carolina?

The survey identified one obstacle to reducing North Carolina sprawl by people living more densely. Although 44% of respondents picked one of the two answers that advocated encouraging people to live in higher density, only a small percent actually want to live in a major city where density is the greatest. 

Only 10% in the 2024 survey found people living in a “major city.” And when asked where they would prefer to live, only 8% chose “major city.”

Getting Started with Chart JS with

The survey offered voters five ways to limit the population and land consumption growth they overwhelmingly said they want to slow down. The YES option was supported in every case. (The YES and NO percentages don’t add up to 100 because of people who answered they were “not sure” of their opinion.)

34% 44% 30% 46% 30% 47% 26% 67% 12% 75% Limit sewer hook-ups to manage growth Funnel residents intohigher density development Restrict development to slowmoves from other states Reduce new immigrationto slow down pop. growth Mandate E-Verify tolimit illegal immigration +10 +16 +17 +41 +63 YES NO