CLAYTON, N.C. – A mother of three who moved here two years ago said she can't imagine living anywhere else.


What You Need To Know

Johnston County was the fastest-growing county in North Carolina, according to the 2020 Census

New residents said they love the small-town feel and the affordability

Leaders said the growth has been good for the county, but infrastructure will need to catch up


When Emma McCarty and her family moved to North Carolina from upstate New York, she said it took two or three tries before they were able to close on a house.

They ended up in Clayton, in Johnston County, in a new neighborhood with two playgrounds and a pool nearby. The location puts them halfway between her family in New York and her husband's family in Florida.

The McCarty family gathers for lunch in their Clayton home. The family moved to North Carolina two years ago from upstate New York. Photo: Garrett Bergquist

“In hindsight, we belong in Clayton,” she said. “So it really worked out nicely.”

A check of 2020 Census data provides a clue why the McCartys had so much trouble finding a new home. North Carolina's population grew by 9% between 2010 and 2020 and some counties more than doubled that rate. Johnston County's population grew the fastest, at 27.9%. Neighboring Wake and Durham counties came in fourth and fifth in the population growth race, tallying growth rates of 25.4% and 21.4%, respectively.

McCarty said that explosive growth means she and her family are able to meet other transplants from all over the country in their new hometown. Still, she said her feelings on being part of that growth are a little mixed.

“It feels good that we're a part of the growth,” she said. “At the same time, I feel for the people who have been here for a long time and have seen their community change so much.”

Johnston County leaders said overall, the growth has been a good thing.

County commissioner Tony Braswell said the board of commissioners has been able to cut the county's tax rate several times because so many more people were coming in and paying Johnston County taxes. Braswell said the county's diversified economy and its proximity to Raleigh have been key to its success.

The growth is not all positive news, however. Braswell said the county will need to build many more schools to accommodate the new residents. He said the board of commissioners likely will ask voters to approve a school bond sometime in the next couple of years. Moreover, the county's land use plan, which guides how land outside of incorporated towns is developed, has not been updated since 2009.

A panel of Johnston County residents is working on a new land use plan that Braswell said could be in place by the middle of next year. As a stopgap measure, county commissioners recently voted to increase the minimum lot size for a single-family home in unincorporated areas to slow down growth while the county's infrastructure catches up.

Ryin McCarty plays with his sons, Weston (in blue) and Keegan (in green) next to a Clayton coffee shop. The McCartys said they enjoy Clayton's small-town feel. Photo: Garrett Bergquist

McCarty said for all the growth around her, Clayton still has enough of a small-town feel. She and her family already have their favorite local restaurants and coffee shops they frequent. She said her family would not be able to afford the home they are in now if they were still in New York.

“We really love Clayton. We know this is where we're meant to be. We're so glad that we made the move,” she said.