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More Dogs on Main Street

by Tom Clyde, Record columnist

I spent an evening at an East Side Planning Commission meeting this week. They are working on a new general plan for eastern Summit County, trying to update things and anticipate inevitable changes. Like all zoning discussions, the devil is in the details. The meeting was well attended, and everybody seemed to agree that their own property should have greatly increased density on it, and their neighbor’s property should remain as open space. Everybody wants to preserve the rural, agrarian lifestyle, viewshed, and appearance of their neighbor’s property.

There was a lot of support for the idea that growth should have to pay all its costs without any subsidy from the rest of us, unless, of course, you want to build a house for your kid on the family farm. In that case, he ought to be able to access the new lot directly from the highway so he can do it on the cheap.

Most of the eastern side of the county is currently at extremely low density, with some land at one unit to 40 acres, a lot of it at one unit to 100 acres, and a huge swath (mostly National Forest land) zoned at one to 160 acres. The actual density that could be built, once you account for odd sized parcels, properties split into multiple parcels by roads and so on, is probably higher than the base number suggests. But nobody at the hearing was asking to have their property put into the one unit per 160-acre zone.

The current general plan was focused on preserving agricultural land in agricultural use. As a person with a healthy appetite, I have to say that is a worthy goal. Food is good. But agriculture in this climate is difficult. Remember the snowstorm on June 11th? The first frost is generally right about Labor Day. That’s a short season. Most people at the meeting seemed to see their present agricultural use winding down in the pretty near future. When the current generation retires or dies, the next generation is already off the farm so there isn’t a successor. Each generation ends up with more owners involved in a shrinking and already marginal family farm or ranch. As one dairy farmer pointed out, you can’t create successful or economically viable agriculture through zoning. It works or it doesn’t, based on economic factors well beyond the Summit County Development Code.

But that’s equally true of housing. The apparent alternative to ag use is residential. Personally, I can’t think of a worse outcome than to have the Kamas Valley look like Snyderville. Still, that’s the direction some people want to go. The pattern of resort residential and suburban bliss is well established on the west side of the county, and already creeping over the ridge from Jordanelle. More of the same is a more logical assumption than deciding that we are going to build a Toyota factory in Wanship.

You can’t create a viable farm or Toyota factory by coloring in a zoning map. It follows that you can’t create a viable suburb through zoning, either. The town of Francis has a huge area zoned commercial, but the only businesses there are a gas station and a welding shop. It’s zoned for a Home Depot, Albertsons, Walmart, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. If you zone it, they won’t necessarily come.

There is a pretty organized group that wants to see suburban density approved all over the east side, with the only real limit being water and sewer (which they want to have the public build for them). As I sat there listening to the discussion, I wondered if we were fighting yesterday’s war. $4 a gallon gas is probably the new reality, and the commute through Parleys Canyon has become a nightmare. Is the kind of extreme suburb "ex-urb" that would be built on the east side any more viable than milking cows?

One man at the hearing asked why his kids’ generation isn’t staying in Summit County. He thought it was because 40-acre zoning made it too expensive. I’m sure that’s a factor, but moving to a location where there are reasonable jobs probably had more to do with it. There are darn few people in Woodland, for example, who are able to make a living in Woodland. There are a few ranches big enough to support a family, but most people are either retired, or commute at least as far as Park City, if not all the way to Salt Lake. If the number of houses doubled, there still wouldn’t be a population base large enough to make a town with enough local employment to sustain itself.

Higher residential density in the eastern county may be as obsolete as the Hummer. If somebody could finance and build something that looks like Jeremy Ranch in Wanship, or Kamas Valley, would anybody buy the lots? When the current real estate train wreck is cleared, I don’t think the market for homes that include a daily commute of 100 miles at $4 a gallon will be among the survivors. Subdividing my ranch into quarter acre lots doesn’t make any more sense than trying to raise bananas at 7,000 feet.

I’ve got neighbors who leave home in the dark and drive as far as Salt Lake and Provo every day, and come home in the dark. They only see their homes in the daylight on weekends. They all complain about the cost of the commute and the unproductive hours on the road. Nobody’s packing up and moving yet, but we haven’t seen any new full-timers moving into the neighborhood, either. The few houses on the market aren’t selling.

It’s possible that $4 gas will be replaced by cheap, clean transportation in the relatively near future. But if expensive energy is permanent, remote suburban sprawl is as unmarketable as a Ford Excursion. A general plan that assumes a future based on long-distance commuting doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore.


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