Gov. Spencer Cox addresses affordable housing in Summit, Wasatch counties |

Gov. Spencer Cox addresses affordable housing in Summit, Wasatch counties

'The only answer is density,' the governor says

Gov. Spencer Cox touted state initiatives and addressed issues such as the labor shortage, affordable housing, open space, water and education during a visit to Wasatch County on Monday. The governor was attending an event hosted by the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce.
David Jackson/Park Record

Gov. Spencer Cox visited Heber City on Monday afternoon to speak with local leaders and the community about progress along the Wasatch Back – and areas that still need to be improved.

The governor’s visit was part of an effort from his office to travel out of the Wasatch Front to better understand what’s happening around the rest of the state, particularly in rural counties. Cox recognizes the community is growing fast. He spent the day traveling with a team of staffers and meeting with Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce members to learn more about the issues Wasatch County residents – and its neighbors – face.

“We recognize, too, that this valley is changing, so much. I do this thing once in a while where I’ll be at a very large gathering and I’ll ask people, ‘How many of you have moved here in the last five years?’ and it’s always kind of stunning to see the number of people who have moved here … and that’s incredibly positive. We love that people with new ideas and different perspectives are coming in. It can also be very challenging,” Cox said to the audience. “As somebody who grew up and lives and now spends my weekends back on the farm in rural Utah, I don’t always like the changes that are happening. I don’t always love that people are coming in and changing my valley, which is the Sanpete Valley, but understanding that if we do work together, that there is room and opportunity for people coming in.”

Cox highlighted several ways the state is investing in the Heber Valley. He mentioned the creation of a four-lane bypass road west of Heber City that connects to U.S. 40 and the construction of the Uinta Basin Railway, both of which are intended to help alleviate traffic, as well as new programming to promote economic growth such as the State Small Business Credit Initiative Program, which is expected to provide $69 million in state funding to help create new jobs in rural areas and expand entrepreneurship opportunities.

While the governor touted state initiatives, members of the public questioned what Cox is doing to help with issues such as the labor shortage and affordable housing, open space, water and education.

Wasatch County resident Sheila Johnson, who identified herself as a middle school teacher, asked what was being done to help rural communities with high housing costs. She said she has friends who commute to the Heber Valley from Spanish Fork and emphasized the importance of teachers living where they work.

Cox anticipates the teacher shortage will worsen over time if salaries aren’t raised. Residences that were once considered low cost have now become more expensive. There’s also a high demand for housing in Utah but a limited supply, he said.

The solution, Cox said, is to create more housing of all kinds in the state. The problem, which is affecting all 29 counties, is that no one wants density.

“This is where it gets a little controversial because everybody believes that we need to lower the price of housing … but nobody wants us to build housing next to their houses,” Cox said. “The only answer is density. That’s the only answer. We have a choice to make.”

The governor said legislation created last year that encourages mixed-use, multi-family and affordable housing developments within a certain radius of public transit stations will help solve the issue.

Cox was referring to H.B. 462, a bill that was amended during the legislative session to include a provision specifically mentioning Summit County. 

The controversial legislation requires counties that have a transit district created by Jan. 1 and a hub in unincorporated areas serving more than four routes to create a Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zone, or HTRZ, at that hub by Dec. 31. In Summit County’s case, the location is west of the Richins Building in Kimball Junction. Critics of the legislation worry it will give developers more freedom when submitting project proposals.

Counties that fail to create an HTRZ before the deadline may not be eligible for state money that can be used for crucial transportation projects. The law also limits the ability of voters to hold a referendum on the HTRZ and its zoning by requiring double the signatures to put it on the ballot. It also prevents a referendum if the County Council passes an HTRZ with a two-thirds majority vote.

The governor explained the legislation prohibits communities from preventing developments around state investments such as transportation infrastructure, which helps people move around more freely. He said even if local governments want to approve new developments, community residents block them from happening or threaten to vote elected officials out.

“And certainly, we’ve had that happen next door, in Summit County. And the Legislature actually stepped in and said, ‘No we’re going to allow some of this to happen,’” Cox said. “There is no magic solution to this. It’s all zoning. That’s it.”

Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and Rep. Mike Kohler, a member of the Utah House of Representatives whose district includes parts of Summit and Wasatch counties, exchange greetings after a Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce meeting on Monday.
David Jackson/Park Record

He acknowledged local governments know what’s best for their constituents, but he said there are times the state must step in.

“That’s the balancing act. I’m a former mayor, a former city council member, a former county commissioner. I believe local government is the best government. However, Nimbyism [Not in My Backyard] is an issue and it’s this tension that we’re dealing with right now. And we have passed a few things that are going to help, we’ve got to do more, and I think you’ll see more this session,” Cox said.

Summit County officials have expressed concerns over their ability to meet the requirements of H.B. 462 in the past. The governor said in an interview on Monday the state will be flexible if a reasonable effort is made. 

“This is that balance that I talked about earlier and how difficult that is. We’re trying to find that right balance between, certainly, local control, local input to a project, but also much of that ‘We want this change, or we want that change’ was an excuse to kill a project. [Residents] really don’t want anything there and that can’t happen either,” Cox told The Park Record. “Finding that right balance is really tricky and the whole nation is dealing with this. I will say that the pendulum is swinging a little bit away from local control.”

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