Great swaths of vacant land still exist on the Salt Lake Valley's west side.

For some developers, that's cause to salivate. For cities with plenty of room to grow, it's reason to plan carefully. For people who live near those wide open spaces, it's a good argument for the status quo.

But much of that land disappeared in the 1990s when the economy favored new-home construction — although driving through Herriman and the west side of West Jordan you wouldn't think construction had slowed any.

About 900,000 people live in the Salt Lake Valley today. Some estimate there will be about 1.4 million by 2030. Most of that increase is expected to take place west of I-15

in such places as Bluffdale, Herriman, South Jordan, Riverton and West Jordan.

So, just how much land is left in the west part of the Salt Lake Valley? How are cities planning for the future? What will this valley look like in 20 or 30 years?

Supply and demand

James Wood is interim director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business. He says economic conditions are still friendly to residential development, with interest rates being kept low to buoy a sliding economy. That means people are still buying and building homes.

That wasn't always the case in the 1980s. By 1989, Wood says, Utah hit a trough for building permits, with about 7,000 issued statewide. By 1996, the number was back up, topping the 23,000-plus record set in the 1970s. Back then, baby boomers were buying up all the new homes. Today in Utah, lots of young families may be the difference.

"Demographics is a huge factor in what drives all this," Wood says.

This year will see about 19,000 building permits for single-family homes. If inflation was coupled with a recession, that number could easily be 50 or 60 percent below the 1996 peak of about 24,000 permits for the whole state.

"We really haven't had much downside," Wood says. "We're still chewing up land out there and building a fair number of homes."

That's despite the state having 13,000 fewer jobs in October 2002 than in October 2001.

With job growth and continued low interest rates, permits could be back up to 24,000 again in four or five years, Wood estimates.

There goes the farm

There are fewer jobs across Utah, but less and less farmland on the west side of Salt Lake County. You've got to build the homes somewhere.

An agriculture census is taken every 10 years; in 1997 it showed Salt Lake County had 113,912 acres of "land in farms." Of that, about half was considered rangeland for grazing, most located in the foothills on the west side.

Land used for actual crops was at 40,035 acres and, out of that, about 14,647 acres were irrigated — and a small portion of that was being used for vegetable farming. Everything else was considered "dry farm" land that depends solely on Mother Nature for production.

If a census were taken today, says Reed Balls, the Farm Bureau's vice president of member relations, most of the irrigated cropland would be gone. That's because developers like to build near the same water sources farmers use for their fields.

Some farmers will hold on, opting to pass along the land to the next generation instead of cashing in. Balls says those will be the farmers who continue to fill a niche and recognize a need for locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. "It may be nice to still go down and get a fresh tomato somewhere or a fresh ear of corn."

Still, the farmland will continue to disappear, he says. "I don't see that trend changing. . . . I think it's important that we recognize if we want to keep farmers and ranchers among us that we recognize their needs."

But the current need in Salt Lake County is for buildable, vacant land. One major source of that land may come by way of a name synonymous with mining.

Kennecott the developer

Kennecott owns about 93,000 acres in Salt Lake and Tooele counties, with almost 80,000 of that on the Salt Lake County side. About 25,000 to 40,000 acres in the Salt Lake Valley's west side are considered developable. So far, about 4,200 acres of that are planned for what is being called the Sunrise development in South Jordan.

That's why Kennecott Land was formed in April 2001. It's separate from Kennecott Utah Copper. As Kennecott's mining interests in the Oquirrh Mountains come to a close, the focus will turn to real-estate development.

The plan is to gradually sell most or all of Kennecott's developable land to builders, emphasizing quality communities with large amounts of open space as a focal point. Thirty percent of Sunrise is planned for open space such as trails and parks. Some of that land could be designated for community gardens or tiny farms where fruits and vegetables are grown.

"We're not aiming for a quick development and cash-out on the land," says Peter McMahon, president of Kennecott Land. "Part of our role is to plan these developments out."

Groundbreaking for Sunrise is planned for 2003, and the first homes should be available by spring 2004. Within 15 years, Sunrise is expected to reach its build-out of 14,000 residential units. And even without a house to its name yet, Sunrise is already getting accolades.

Quality growth

South Jordan and other cities are listening to Envision Utah's ideas on creating pedestrian-friendly, walkable communities with an emphasis on open space.

Envision is a nonprofit consulting group funded mostly by the private sector and federal grants. It has trained 2,000 local officials, developers and real-estate agents on how to create and promote communities with a balance of mixed-use areas, high-density housing and open space.

Envision Utah spokeswoman Kristin Thompson estimates there are 630 square miles of developable land left along the Wasatch Front from Nephi north to Brigham City and Tooele east to Kamas. By 2020, it could all be gone.

"We can conserve 171 square miles of that land over the next 20 years," she says. "It's just a matter of how to develop."

Quality high-density developments, infill and using land once deemed environmentally unfriendly to builders are ways to conserve land. One danger, Thompson says, is if communities decide they want minimum one-acre lot sizes for that spread-out, rural feel. "It's a matter of communities taking a look at the region as a whole."

South Jordan and Sunrise already received Envision's quality-growth award for planning to preserve open space and incorporate mixed-use developments into their plans for a walkable community.

But the estimated 30,000 people who will fill "walkable" Sunrise — like the thousands of others projected to move in on the valley's west side — will still need to drive.

Land for cars

Many people on the west side are already experiencing traffic headaches. In 30 years, the west side will be a big mess without significant boosts to public transit.

"We'll have some serious congestion," said Sam Klemm, community affairs representative for the Wasatch Front Regional Council. "That's why we need to plan for it now."

The regional council helps Salt Lake, Tooele, Davis, Morgan and Weber counties with transportation, planning and growth issues that often involve the use of federal funds.

Planning means identifying land for light-rail lines into West Valley, West Jordan and other west-side cities. For the Utah Transit Authority, it means doubling bus service all over the valley by 2030. For the Utah Department of Transportation, it means buying up land for rights of way for another major highway through the valley.

"How do we accommodate the growth — and in the way that the cities are planning for it?" Klemm asks.

Mobility will be the key. Whether there will be funding to make that possible is another question.

Mayors from west-side cities offer creative solutions to the mobility conundrum. One idea is to introduce a "hub and spoke" busing system with one major west-side bus hub from which surrounding cities would feed. But even that idea requires — what else — land.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com