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Allow change in S.L. County

State lawmakers are understandably shy when it comes to dealing with the unincorporated areas of Salt Lake County. Two years ago, they set sail with the idea of townships, quasi governments that granted local residents control over planning and zoning. But soon that ship began listing badly as the idea took on too much political water.

That was a bad experience - both for lawmakers and for thousands of unincorporated residents statewide. Eventually, the law was repealed.But this year, lawmakers have a chance to approve something that makes much more sense. Unfortunately, they seem unwilling to try. HB430, sponsored by Rep. Steve Barth, D-Salt Lake, remains hopelessly mired as the Legislature winds down its 1998 session. That's too bad.

The bill would allow Salt Lake County to set up service areas in unincorporated communities, with each area governed by a board of trustees that is wholly elected by the residents of the area served. The board would decide planning and zoning matters, and it would be responsible for providing municipal services to the area - everything from police and fire to sanitation.

In many ways, these service areas sound suspiciously similar to the quasi-city creatures townships were designed to be, but important differences exist. First, they would be created by the County Commission. Residents could not initiate petition drives to form one. Secondly, and most important, the service areas would not preclude any annexation or incorporation attempts.

One of the chief weaknesses of the now defunct township law was that it created governments that were nearly impossible to penetrate or remove. Township boards would have had to approve any incorporation drive, and that was unlikely to happen.

Barth's bill is the creation of a panel that county commissioners created to study both this problem and the one concerning the county's outdated form of government. The panel had rather unholy origins. It was created after commissioners unceremoniously yanked a change-of-government measure from last November's ballot.

Regardless of that, it has devised a sensible plan that would solve one of the county's most glaring problems. More than 300,000 people live in Salt Lake County's unincorporated areas, which are spread throughout the county. These areas lack any formal control over planning and zoning decisions, and they have no direct representation when it comes to matters of taxation. Instead, three county commissioners decide these matters, even though they are elected by the county at-large and don't have to live in unincorporated areas.

The panel also backs a Senate bill that would broaden the types of governments counties may adopt. That measure also deserves support.

Salt Lake County needs to move forward toward adopting a government that better serves its needs. Lawmakers shouldn't be afraid to allow that type of local autonomy.