Facebook Twitter



Forget the Legislature.

Gov. Mike Leavitt is taking his open-space initiative to the people, where he thinks it will mesh with community-backed efforts to keep asphalt-and-stucco jungles from paving the rest of paradise."I'm convinced this is an issue the people of the state support," Leavitt said during a Friday morning news conference in a grassy field on the banks of the Weber River.

He said that this summer he will make a concerted, statewide push for creation of county committees that will recommend ways to save green space. The strategy is in contrast to traditions for such planning, which typically has come from often-unpopular state and federal mandates.

Friday's occasion was the placement of 31 acres in a perpetual conservation easement by a pair of local developers who said they'd rather see it preserved as a park than turned into a subdivision.

"When I was a kid, we were able to walk the river bottoms end-to-end around here," said Grant O'Driscoll, who owns the property with partner Kurt Cook.

Things have changed since then in still-pastoral Oakley and environs, where today there's a hint of suburbia in the air. "No trespassing" signs warn hikers off the land as more and more houses are built in and around the scenic, high-country town, which has become a bedroom community to Salt Lake City, about 50 minutes away.

"It's like Riverton was a dozen or so years ago," said O'Driscoll, which was another way of saying it could become what Riverton is now - a well-populated suburb.

In appearing as he did on Friday - beside a stream flush with spring runoff, next to a glade where a deer briefly interrupted the news conference and at the mouth of a picturesque canyon that is a popular summer playground for Wasatch Front residents - Leavitt was making a statement both political and philosophical.

First, it was notice that in spite of the Legislature's stubborn refusal earlier this year to make any substantive effort to preserve open space in Utah, Leavitt was finding a way to do it, sans lawmakers.

Second, it was an opportunity for the governor to show he has some grass-roots support.

"We've not trying to dictate to people what they can do with their property, but we are interested in clustering our developments," said Oakley Mayor Kenneth Woolstenhulme, who praised the land donation by O'Driscoll and Cook as a precedent he hopes others will follow.

County Commissioner Jim Soter said it's just the kind of easement the County Commission had in mind earlier this spring when it passed a sweeping land-use code for the east side of the county that requires builders to mix development with open space.

He noted, too, that the county ordinance put newcomers on alert that local government has no intention of letting the small towns of eastern Summit County turn into the bustling sprawl of the urban Salt Lake area.

"We said, `What you see is what you get, and we're not going to change anything when you come in . . . we want you to adapt to our lifestyle."

And Wendy Fisher, executive director of the Utah Open Lands Committee, said her 6-year-old group's efforts to urge developers to put substantial parts of their projects in open space have been greeted with increasing warmth.

"They're no longer putting in golf courses to attract people, they're putting in open space," said Fisher.

She said, too, that much of the impetus for preservation in rural communities is coming now from longtime residents.

"It's not just the newcomers anymore."

Though developers like O'Driscoll and Cook are making a sacrifice, their motives aren't purely altruistic. With conservation easements come tax breaks and, in most cases, nearby green space makes real estate more valuable. In this case, 50 adjacent acres of land will be divvied into 10, five-acre parcels, of which only two are left, both priced at $160,000.

Leavitt on Friday made two other similar appearances, one in adjacent Wasatch County to endorse a proposal to preserve agricultural lands, the other in Utah County to recognize the beginning of a trail system at Nunn's Park in Provo Canyon.

On Monday, the governor will be in the St. George area of Washington County, where he will endorse work by the Virgin River Land Trust, the only other Utah conservation-easement group aside from the Utah Open Lands Committee, which is based in Salt Lake City.

Leavitt said that open lands, ranging from river lowlands to grain fields, hold intrinsic cultural and aesthetic value beyond economics, though he conceded that money often talks louder than anything.

"Anytime you've got prime farmland like this at today's prices, you're going to have a problem."