More Dogs on Main Street
February 23, 2008
With a new town here, and a new town there, here a town, there a town, everywhere a new town eyie, eyie, oh. It seems like we are incorporating new towns by the litter. In Wasatch County, the proposed incorporations are mostly fictitious places where nobody lives except for a few random neighbors dragged in to make 100 residents. They are places like Aspen and Independence, and Hideout Canyon, one of those golf-course ghost towns on the east side of Jordanelle. They aren’t places that ever had names, identities, or even residents before very recently. In other words, they are real-estate developments whose owners are unhappy with the current zoning and development regulations imposed. By creating their own town, they assume they can elect a friendly town council that will adopt weak ordinances, more or less letting them get away with murder in the development process.
Summit County has a few micro-town incorporations in the works, too, though ours are not quite as egregious as the Wasatch County version. Woodland, where I live, and Hoytsville are both taking a pretty serious look at incorporating. Woodland is a real place with 125 years or so of actual history. There is a legitimate community identity that incorporation would sustain. It’s not a crazy idea (until you run the numbers).
Hoytsville is the same kind of place – a real town with real residents. But the Hoytsville incorporation has a different twist. In addition to what any rational person would view as the "town," an incorporated Hoytsville will include 42,000 acres of mountain land. As somebody pointed out, that would make Hoytsville geographically bigger than Ogden, with more sheep than people.
The people pushing the Woodland proposal redrew their map to leave my family’s property out of it. Hoytsville looks similar in motive, if grander in scale. In both cases, people who don’t like the current county zoning are hoping that a newly formed town council comprised of Uncle Joe, Aunt Betsy and several cousins will adopt ordinances that increase the density and cut the cost of developing.
The proponents say it’s all about "property rights." Under this theory of "property rights," which has the craven support of the Utah Legislature, only owners of vacant property have "property rights." The guy who just bought a house abutting property zoned for agriculture apparently has no property rights in his expectation that there won’t be a Super Wal-Mart or a diesel-repair shop exhausting into his bedroom window. "Property rights" belong to developers.
The argument is made that "all I want to do is carve a few lots for my kids out of the old family ranch." This is often made by descendents of the guy who drove the last Indian off the property and homesteaded it. I fully understand the argument, being in a somewhat similar situation. But that lot carved out for your kid is, to everybody else, just another driveway turning onto an already crowded road system.
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We own a lot of stuff in common – roads, school systems, water pipe, snow-plowing equipment, sewers, air quality, flood control, and all the other infrastructure that makes a community possible. The guy who makes 3 or 4 lots for his kids that all front on a public highway (because he doesn’t want to pay to build a side street) is the same guy who will then demand the rest of us pay to put in a center turn lane because there is suddenly too much traffic. The fan of "property rights" demands that his subdivision of 100 new lots gets approved without conditions or costs, then fully expects the rest of us to approve the school bond to build the new schools his development requires.
The "property rights" folks insist that they have been paying property taxes on their land, too, for all these years, so they are entitled to their share of the public assets. That’s partly right. Vacant farmland doesn’t get (or ask) much by way of county services. The cattle don’t go to school, the police don’t respond to domestic disturbances between the horses, and so on. But that’s already adjusted in the greenbelt tax assessment. Farmland is taxed on the basis of its farm production, not the market value of the property. In my case, I pay twice the property tax on my house that I pay on the rest of the ranch. So while I’m entitled to my proportionate use of the public services provided by the other taxpayers, the pittance I’ve paid shouldn’t entitle me to force the rest of the community to build a new sewer system if I decide to subdivide, or let me pollute the river to save a buck.
These new towns aren’t going to be cheap to operate. There’s a lot of overhead. They need to buy insurance. As a portion of the county’s insurance, it’s almost impossible to apportion it to the area being incorporated. As a stand-alone, brand new town with no track record, it may be like insuring a teenager with a DUI. The accounting necessary to comply with state law is expensive. A planning, engineering and building process that is sophisticated enough to deal with suburban sprawl on mountainous terrain is expensive – but that’s the whole point.
The new towns won’t be able to reasonably afford to establish the sophisticated regulatory systems needed to build new towns that function without adversely impacting everybody else in the process. In the end, that’s what the current "property rights" argument is all about – developing yours with as little cost to you and as much subsidy from everybody else.
I guess it’s possible that a newly incorporated town of 100 or 500 residents, with no tax base to speak of (we have one business in Woodland that generates sales tax), could regulate development in a way that prevents houses from sliding down unstable mountainsides, retaining walls from collapsing, and unreasonable fiscal and environmental impacts from landing on their neighbors. It’s just not the way to bet.
Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for nearly 20 years.