A million new neighbors
October 30, 2015
There was a bit of news this week that was so scary it can only be delivered on Halloween. Utah now has 3 million people. I’m not sure how they calculate that exactly, but whatever department of state government is in charge of such things announced this week that we had crossed the 3 million mark. They didn’t have any kind of celebration like a grocery store recognizing its millionth customer. Nobody drove their U-Haul across the border and got hit with confetti and showered with non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice. It was just one of those number cruncher things — the state planners were pretty sure we had broken 3 million.
Personally, I think that’s a really bad idea. It took Utah 119 years to reach the one million mark back in 1966. The thing about people is that when you get a million of them, it doesn’t take long to get another million, and then another. The forecast is that we will have 4 million here within 16 years. The Olympics were only 13 years ago, and that seems like yesterday. So in roughly that same amount of time, we are going to shoehorn another million people into the state. I hope they all bring some water.
It’s a pretty safe bet they won’t be moving to Price, Fillmore, Ephraim or any of the other rural towns that are barely clinging to life these days. That next million people will be landing along the Wasatch Front, and spilling over to the Wasatch Back. I have a feeling that every one of them will be trying to make a left turn at Kimball Junction to get in the drive-thru lane at Del Taco. Where are we going to put them all?
Well, if you are the Eastern Summit County Planning Commission, you are going to put them on one-acre lots that front on every road in the county with the curious exception of Democrat Alley. The proposal is to put a driveway every 100 feet on both sides of State Highways 32 and 35, turning marginally adequate through streets into neighborhood residential. And then the assumption seems to be that UDOT, having solved all the problems of a million more people on the Wasatch Front, will come to the rescue, condemn a new right of way through the farm land, and build replacement highways because the County has made the existing highways useless as a transportation system.
There are a lot of problems with that theory (like money), but one of them is that the county is also proposing to re-zone the farmland from one unit on 20 or 40 acres to one unit on 6 acres. So when UDOT gets the funding to correct our mistake, they will be condemning people’s houses.
Increasing the density isn’t completely nuts. In large areas of the county, what looks like big open fields of consolidated ownership is in fact already sliced up into smaller tracts. They are just managed as one. When grandpa kicked the bucket, he divided the 80 acres among his kids, and they got old and died and did the same, and the end result is a whole lot of parcels that are in that 6 to 10 acre range already. There is a legitimate equity argument that somebody sitting on 6 acres subdivided more or less by accident, gets a building permit while the next door neighbor is required to have 40 acres to build the same house. Forty acres is probably unfairly large; 6 acres seems unreasonably small.
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The current code really tries to preserve agricultural uses. That’s a noble idea, and food production is a far better land use than golf courses. But no zoning ordinance can overcome the reality that this is lousy farm country. My farm is higher than most, but we normally count on just an 80-day period of frost-free weather, and for most of August, the nights are cool enough that stuff stops growing even if it doesn’t freeze. It’s slightly better a thousand feet lower, but there isn’t any prime farmland in Summit County.
It’s not realistic to assume that people will scratch out a living on 40 or 80 acres of frozen farmland while the insanity of resort real estate pricing spreads. But are there really thousands of lots’ worth of pent-up demand for people wanting to live in Hoytsville? Is there really a market for hundreds of one-acre lots fronting on state highways?
Matching zoning to physical and economic realities makes sense. A code that makes most properties non-conforming is pretty unworkable. Rural Summit County is a unique place. The current proposal seems almost calculated to destroy all the characteristics that make it special and turn it into just another patch of suburban bliss.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.