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Utah may repeat S. California errors

As a professional planner and educator, I read with interest your articles on the front page of the March 2 Viewpoint section that addressed not neglecting the need to preserve important land and green spaces.

While I agree in concept with the comments made in the opinion and Jay Evensen's column, like many similar articles found in Utah's newspapers, they fail to address the real problem facing growth along the Wasatch Front: a total lack of comprehensive planning for the region's future. Preserving open space is only one element of a desperately needed comprehensive planning process that has to begin at the state level.

Other elements comprising "smart growth" include creating a range of housing choices; creating or reviving safe, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods; fostering a strong sense of place; mixing land uses to work toward a locational balance between jobs and housing opportunities; providing a range of transportation choices; encouraging compact building designs to lessen the impact of growth on the region's green fields; encouraging working relationships between government and the private sector in properly managing growth; and making the local planning and development review process fair, predictable and reasonably cost-efficient.

While it is popular in Utah to compare the negative impacts of growth in Southern California with what is happening here today, having experienced both firsthand, I am both amused and disheartened with what I see. I'm amused by the fear of many Utahns that the Wasatch Front will become another Southern California as it relates to size. In my opinion, nothing is further from the truth. The Wasatch Front, with all of its growth — existing and anticipated — will never come close to the size of Southern California and the problems that size creates.

However, what disheartens me is the attitude about managing and planning for growth along the Wasatch Front, particularly in state and local government.

Near the end of the 1970s, growth in Southern California was booming relatively unchecked by any kind of real comprehensive plan, particularly at a regional level. Individual cities and counties were left solely to their own planning processes, good or bad, to balance all that growth was throwing at them.

Expectedly, the reaction was often to try to push the problems of growth onto the next city or county. At this same time, the transportation system was almost exclusively freeway-oriented and people, including me for a time, were driving solo sometimes 50 to 70 miles to work every day on overcrowded freeways. As a result, the Southern California air was getting progressively more unbreathable, the surface water systems were being fouled and life in the region for many of its residents was not livable anymore. It was inevitable that someone or something bigger than Southern California would have to step in and bring everything and everyone to their senses. That something was the Environmental Protection Agency.

What the EPA said is that without strong guidance from Washington, D.C., Southern California would continue to make decisions about growth like a train wreck waiting to happen. EPA took hold of the federal purse strings for transportation and services on a regional basis and essentially said no one would get any more allowance until they "collectively" cleaned up their messy room.

For a period of roughly five years, Southern California cities and counties, through the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), worked together to come up with a regional plan for growth that included the elements of population size and distribution, affordable housing, employment, transportation, air quality and water quality.

So, is this an example for the Wasatch Front to follow? Sure it is. The same types of attitudes exist here at both the state and local government level. The unfortunate difference is that the home-rule attitude here is significantly more entrenched in the principles of business and, in my opinion, Utah is much less likely to learn from Southern California's errors and plan and coordinate the comprehensive planning for regional and local growth without federal mandate.

Comprehensive planning is substantially easier when performed voluntarily and by consensus of the participants. However, I fear it is inevitable that we will continue on the current path, fail to take the initiative for positive change clearly before us and ultimately become vassals of federal mandates.

Steve McCutchan is a principal in Blake / McCutchan Design Inc., a Salt Lake land planning and landscape architecture firm.