Our cities are growing denser, one by one. A drive down I-15 makes that all too vivid. But go west of the freeway a few miles and you'll find the last holdout: Bluffdale.
Residents like Mandy Flowers, 23, hope Bluffdale can somehow stay tranquil, removed from the negative aspects of urban life.
"I can actually breathe here," Flowers said. "Bluffdale's like 'The Waltons.' I don't have to worry about crime."
Flowers moved from West Valley City four years ago and found a job at Bluffdale's one and only store, the Maverik, where locals and passers-through stop for sandwiches, frozen yogurt and fishing tackle. "We don't need more retail, nor do we need the traffic that would come with it," Flowers said. "We just go to Riverton" to shop.
Flowers agrees with city officials who've said "no" to proposals for high-density housing.
"Can't there be one place left in Salt Lake County where a rural atmosphere can continue to exist?" Bluffdale City Attorney Kevin Watkins asked. He doesn't want to see Bluffdale go the way of neighboring suburbs, where he says high-density housing has proliferated like popcorn.
But other county residents say Watkins is being unrealistic, even exclusionary. Michael Hutchings, the Sandy attorney representing Anderson Development in a lawsuit against Bluffdale, calls the city's policies "unhealthy, illegal and un-American." Anderson is suing to disconnect some 60 acres from the city, and plans to build multi-family housing on the land.
Some south-valley residents like Doug Jessop, 29, want affordable housing built in their back yards.
"When my kids are old enough (to buy their own homes), I don't want them to have to move to Magna," Jessop said.
He grew up in rural Herriman and moved inside Bluffdale's city limits two years ago. If this community sticks to its 1-acre-lot zoning policy and refuses to allow apartments or townhouses, his children probably won't be able to live here, he said.
Jessop added that higher-density housing doesn't have to be ugly, and referred to one-third acre developments in Draper that "look really nice." Bluffdale is also in need of more commercial development. "How is the city going to pay for anything without a tax base?" he asked.
Jessop's answer to the "Can't there be one last quiet spot?" question is "No. There can't."
Look just northeast of Bluffdale and you can see how the city is an island in the suburban stream, a human stream that flowed from Salt Lake City. In 1960, the capital's population peaked at 189,454. Thirty years later, it dipped under 160,000, and today it's hovering at 174,264. Look at the number of housing units on each acre of Salt Lake City and you see no change: The average was nine units per acre in 1960, nine in 1990 and nine in 2000.
If the housing density hasn't increased, where are all those people living?
A whole lot of them live in Sandy. In 1970 that city's population was 6,438. Now it's up to 102,033, or about 4,482 people per square mile. West Jordan and West Valley City have also filled fast, with 4,470 and 3,202 people per square mile, respectively.
Riverton, just across Bangerter Highway from Bluffdale, is also out front in the density race: 2,400 residents live on each of Riverton's 16 1/2 square miles.
Jessop said he hopes Bluffdale will stop trying to fend off apartments, condos, townhouses, "twin homes" and other forms of high-density housing. He hopes the city will "govern the growth. If they don't do that, Bluffdale could get squished like a bug."
Besides the Anderson Development lawsuit to disconnect land from Bluffdale, the city is facing another suit from Dave Millheim and Development Associates, who seek to sever another parcel. If both land owners win their cases, Bluffdale will shrink by more than 115 acres, and the city could wind up fleeced by court costs.
Yet Watkins is hanging on to his hope that Bluffdale will remain the south valley's spacious outfield. "It would be a shame to look out and see stacks and stacks of housing," he said.