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South Carolina's metropolitan areas — including James Island (shown here Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017) — have seen population increases that have helped put the Palmetto State over the 5-million milestone. Wade Spees/Staff 

For many years now, more U.S. residents have been relocating to South Carolina than to all but a handful of other states.

State analysts previously predicted South Carolina's population would exceed 5 million by 2020, as did the University of North Carolina's Carolina Population Center. Instead, the Palmetto State passed the 5 million milestone nearly three years early, during the first half of 2017, the Census Bureau estimated last week.

“We don’t see any slowdown, but every state has a tipping point," said Mike Macfarlane, South Carolina's census program manager.

The large, ongoing influx of new residents has accounted for most of South Carolina's population growth since 1970. It has brought growth and opportunities to many parts of the state, but also many challenges, both for fast-growing areas and for those left behind.

“South Carolina is growing, but it’s not uniform," said Frank Rainwater, executive director of the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. "We’ve got counties that are losing population, which is a whole different challenge, maintaining services with a shrinking tax base."

The Palmetto State's population growth been concentrated in metropolitan areas — Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Greenville, Hilton Head and Charlotte — with a quarter of South Carolina counties accounting for three-quarters of the state's growth.

Each time there's been a recession, the number of people moving from out of state has dropped sharply, only to come roaring back when the economy picked up again.

In fast-growing counties, unemployment rates are low but frustration with traffic is high. Shopping areas and services including health care are abundant, but so are overcrowded schools. Housing choices are plentiful, but increasingly unaffordable.

High-growth areas in Charleston, York and Lancaster counties have used development moratoriums to slow some of their growth, particularly involving apartment buildings. In municipalities such as Mount Pleasant — which was the fastest-growing city east of the Mississippi in 2015 — voters have elected leaders intent on applying the brakes.

While campaigning this year for mayor of Mount Pleasant, Town Councilman Will Haynie said growth was the only issue. Promising an end to development and traffic "disasters," he won by a 2-to-1 margin.

In York County, now considered part of the Charlotte metropolitan area, the Fort Mill School District is seeking a $10,000-per-home development impact fee to help pay for new schools needed to serve a growing number of students.

Development impact fees have soared in other places, including Mount Pleasant and Beaufort County, as towns and counties struggle to fund road construction and public services. And residents of Charleston and Berkeley counties have voted to impose higher sales taxes to pay for growth-related needs such as school and road projects and protecting open space.

“It’s certainly positive that people want to live here, but it does provide interesting challenges," Rainwater said. “I’d much rather have a growing population than a shrinking one."

In slow-growth and no-growth rural counties, crowded roads are uncommon, but high rates of poverty are not. Job growth has been sluggish in many sparsely-developed counties, some have seen medical providers shut down, and local governments struggle to maintain services as their tax base shrinks.

Mark Smith lives in Mount Pleasant and owns a funeral home business with five locations. He grew up in Bamberg, a small rural county where the population has dropped by about 10 percent since 1970.

“When I reflect on my childhood in Bamberg, seeing empty stores on Main Street and businesses closing down, that’s completely different from what my children have experienced growing up in Mount Pleasant," said Smith, who served on Mount Pleasant Town Council.

“When I talk to my hometown people in Bamberg, about some of the issues in Mount Pleasant, it was not uncommon for some of them to say 'Bless y’all’s hearts, send some of that growth to Bamberg.'"

"It's important to keep a balanced perspective," Smith said.

In some rural counties and small towns, police and sheriff's departments have paid for vehicle and building expenses by seizing money suspected of being linked to drug-dealing during traffic stops on interstate highways. The practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, is controversial but legal.

In rural school districts that struggle to attract teachers, there's a heavy reliance on foreign-exchange teachers working here under short-term visas. In Allendale County, the state recently seized control of the school district for the second time. 

Large amounts of state funding are tied to population, pegged to the official census conducted every 10 years. That has shifted funding away from rural counties, and the next shift is coming soon.

“The pot (of money) is going to be redistributed," Rainwater said. "It’s 2020 that really counts."

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.