Even at the height of the booming '90s, Utahns didn't often think of the need to preserve open space. When asked in a 1995 survey to list their top growth-related concerns, most people picked overpopulation, crime and education as the top three challenges. Transportation came fourth.
Open space and water didn't make the cut. Of course, that was before the drought. Water might rank higher today. But open space?
Land-use issues tend to be the public policy equivalents of a home's furnace and sewage lines. No one pays much attention to them so long as they function properly. Take them away, however, and a home just wouldn't be the same.
Take away parks, natural habitats for wildlife and wetlands that help feed native and migratory birds, and the Wasatch Front would not be the same kind of place in which to live. It would be a sterile place as hard as concrete, an uninviting series of brown valleys with serious water and air quality issues.
A lot of Utah's cities and counties understand this and have done an admirable job of planning and paying for parks and natural areas. The Jordan River Parkway is a testament to what can be done when several local governments join together in a cooperative effort. But so much more could be done with state leadership on the issue. Many small towns and rural areas, in particular, don't have the means with which to adequately deal with open-space issues.
Right now, state lawmakers are wrestling with a tight budget. They have cut in many necessary areas and deferred other important improvements. But they are on the verge of seriously underfunding the Quality Growth Commission, which already is among the smallest parts of the budget.
Gov. Mike Leavitt recommended the commission receive $2.2 million. Right now, the Legislature is considering giving $482,600. Some are foolishly questioning the need for a commission at all.
In the four years since lawmakers created the commission, it has taken a minimal amount of state funding and used it to leverage $52 million worth of projects statewide. These have been roughly evenly divided among urban and rural projects, with a slight edge to the rural areas. But with only $482,600, little could be done. For example, the state would miss out on a potential $16 million in federal matching funds to preserve farmlands.
Just because the state's growth rate has slowed, the issues of sound growth management have not diminished. To the contrary, now would be a good time for government and private conservation groups to acquire and set aside land without the constant pressure of development.
Even with the slow economy, however, the state continues to grow. Developers continue to put homes and other structures on raw land. For the most part, this is good. But some land needs to be preserved.
From the start, the Growth Commission has been opposed by Realtors and developers who worry about losing land and property rights. The commission, however, has never robbed a landowner or condemned a single acre. It doesn't have the power to do anything of the sort. Instead, it helps local governments acquire land at fair market values — land that could be a significant amenity for nearby developments.
In the rush to develop and build, Utah's communities could one day end up like Pyrrhus, the ancient king of Epirus. He was so bent on victory that he didn't care about the cost. Finally, after a particularly bloody battle, he said, "One more such victory and I am lost."
Growth is indeed good. But it can't come at the destruction of the things that make life good. Pyrrhus' kingdom eventually was ruined. Lawmakers need to adequately fund the Quality Growth Commission and set it back on track. That would allow future Utahns to enjoy the state as we do today.