03/31/11 7:14am
03/31/2011 7:14 AM

JOHN NEELY FILE PHOTO Two Hispanic men watching last year’s Memorial Day parade from their home on Roanoke Avenue.

Riverhead Town’s population grew by 21 percent in the last decade, according to the 2010 census, parts of which were released last week.

That’s the largest percentage increase by far of any town in Suffolk County. It’s also a drastically larger percentage increase than occurred in either the county as a whole or New York State, where populations increased by 2 percent and 5 percent, respectively, during the same period.

Riverhead’s 2010 population is listed as 33,506, compared to 27,680 in the 2000 census.

The second largest percentage increase in Suffolk occurred in East Hampton Town, which saw a 9.2 percent population increase, although the biggest increase in actual population was in Brookhaven Town, which gained 38,020 residents between 2000 and 2010.

One of the biggest increases in Riverhead, at least by percentage, was in the Hispanic population, which new census figures shows grew by 77 percent, from 1,678 to 4,649 over the 10 years. That figure amounts to 14 percent of the town’s population.

Countywide the proportion of Hispanic residents has increased by 56 percent since the 2000 census, now accounting for 15 percent of the population.

The black population in Riverhead Town, on the other hand, decreased in the last decade, from 2,913 to 2,579, according to the census, while the white population increased by 17.5 percent, from 23,593 to 27,726.

Both census results and recent Riverhead school district statistics released by the state Department of Education show more Hispanics than blacks in Riverhead, although Hispanic is not considered a race, and it’s possible to be both black and Hispanic, so the numbers aren’t really comparable.

No one seemed too surprised by Riverhead’s population growth or the expansion of its Hispanic population.

Sister Margaret Smyth, who heads the Spanish Apostolate for the Catholic Church on the North Fork, an outreach organization, said she’s not surprised by the large numbers of Hispanics but thinks the count in the 2000 census was too low.

This time around, she said, she and others worked with the Census Bureau to ensure that Hispanics were more accurately counted. “We sent out teams of people, ahead of time, to inform people that the census workers were coming and explain why it was so important to be counted,” Sister Margaret said, adding that she then directed the census workers to Sunday masses, where they spoke with Hispanic community members. She also informed the census workers of places they likely missed.

Sister Margaret said she tries to push the Hispanic population to be more active in the community, especially given its growing size. One has only to look at the Sunday Spanish language masses at St. John’s R.C. Church in Riverhead to know there’s a large Hispanic population here.

“Last Sunday night, we were jammed,” she said. “There were people standing all around the walls and into the vestibule.”

Sister Margaret said that while the Hispanic population is rising across Long Island, Riverhead is an especially popular destination because it has access to public transportation, stores, affordable housing and jobs.

“It’s a hub,” she said.

The Hispanic population on the South Fork is largely from South America and Puerto Rico, particularly Colombia, while Hispanic immigrants on the North Fork come primarily from Central America and Mexico, particularly Guatemala, she said.

“The question I always ask myself is: How do we take all of these different groups and form a cohesive unit that’s working toward the enhancement of Riverhead?” she said.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter also wasn’t surprised by the census results showing Riverhead with the biggest percentage population growth.

“Riverhead is the place where everybody wants to be,” he said. “It’s a great town.”

The town’s 2003 master plan predicts a maximum town population of 43,225 if its zoning recommendations are followed.

Mr. Walter said he doesn’t think the town will ever exceed that number, and may not even get near it.

“Our job is to create a balance with growth and the protection of farmlands and open space,” he said. “We’ve preserved thousands of acres of farms in Riverhead. Given the amount of land preserved already, I think Riverhead will never become like Nassau County. It will always be rural.”

Mr. Walter also agreed with Sister Margaret’s assessment that the 2000 census probably under-counted the Hispanic population.

The Long Island Power Authority does an annual population survey for Long Island towns in non-census years, and those surveys had also shown population growing at a greater pace in Riverhead than in other towns for most of the past decade. But that growth rate slowed recently, with increases under 1 percent in each of the last two years. The town’s population grew by more than 7 percent in 2001 and increased by more than 3 percent every year from 2000 to 2005, according to LIPA.

FUN CENSUS FACTS

The 2010 census was largely focused on statistics about population and race or ethnicity.

However, additional statistics were gathered through the American Community Survey, which is affiliated with the U.S. Census Bureau and provides data every year, rather than every 10 years.

For a town Riverhead’s size, however, the data isn’t exactly available every year. Instead, the most recent ACS stats for Riverhead come from a 2005-2009 survey, containing information gathered over that five-year period.

Those statistics reveal that the median value of property in Riverhead Town is $401,600; the median monthly housing cost for homeowners with a mortgage is $2,380; and median monthly housing costs for homeowners without a mortgage is $817.

The average residential rent in Riverhead Town is $1,109.

For 48 percent of the town’s tenants, rent costs eat up more than 35 percent of their income.

The biggest employment fields in Riverhead were “educational services and health care and social assistance,” which employ 3,957 people, followed by retail trade, with 2,571. By contrast, farming and fishing occupy only 250.

The average household income was $85,149, but the median household income was $68,928. The average per-person income was $34,455.

Did someone say Polish Town? More like Polish Census Designated Place. The most prevalent ancestries in Riverhead Town were Irish (8,256), Italian (7,668) and German (5,818), with Polish coming in fourth, with 4,988,

But in the Riverhead Census Designated Place, which doesn’t include Calverton, Wading River, Aquebogue or Jamesport, Polish was the number one ancestry, claimed by 2,502 people, according to the census.

tgannon@timesreview.com