The opponents of the proposed Quarry Bend development in Sandy make solid arguments against the placement of big-box stores Wal-Mart and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in a mixed-use development at about 1000 East 9400 South. They worry about substantial increases in traffic, effects on their property values and other quality-of-life issues.
If we had our druthers, the entire 107-acre site would be set aside as a regional park. The Salt Lake Valley's earliest "city planners" had remarkable vision in establishing Liberty Park. It is a treasure enjoyed year-round. Imagine the multigenerational benefits of establishing a large regional park at the south end of the valley in 2005.
But that's not the choice before Sandy voters on Tuesday. Voters will decide whether to keep a zoning change approved as an ordinance by the Sandy City Council in November 2004 but essentially held in abeyance pending the outcome of this referendum. That zoning designation would permit "big box" retail establishments as part of mixed-use zoning at the site of a former gravel pit. If the referendum fails, the existing zoning would remain, which allows very specific land uses but expressly prohibits home-improvement stores, grocery stores and discount stores, among others.
After careful study and hearing out the opponents, Sandy city officials and developer the Boyer Co., we urge Sandy residents to adopt the zoning designation passed by the Sandy City Council in 2004. The new zoning would permit the Quarry Bend development, which would include two big-box stores, diverse housing stock, small businesses and offices, walking and biking paths and what the Quarry Bend Web site calls "parklike" amenities and open space.
Some may view this referendum as an opportunity to take a stand against big-box developments. We believe a far greater principle is at stake — protecting a municipality's authority to properly plan and zone. Special-interest groups may do a good job of defining issues and concerns, but municipal planning processes are highly complex. City planners attempt to sculpt communities that enhance quality of life, encourage needed services and recreational opportunities and promote public safety. They make recommendations to planning commissions, which are eventually forwarded to city councils. There are ample opportunities for the public to be heard throughout the process.
Planning and zoning authority is under attack on many fronts. House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, and Rep. Wayne Harper, R- West Jordan, are contemplating legislation that would require cities to give specific reasons why they make zoning decisions. City leaders would have to find that a proposed development would be "detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of the community" before they could reject it. Cities also may face strict time limits in making development decisions.
This appears to be a move to dilute municipal powers with respect to planning and zoning decisions. What would be left, community planning according to the whims of wealthy land owners? Planning and zoning, it can be argued, are among the main reasons municipal governments exist.
As troubling as the lawmakers' issues may be, it is equally dangerous to make zoning decisions at the ballot box. Most voters will not undertake the careful study and analysis inherent in planning and zoning processes. These are not issues that should be decided by sound bites, clever advertisements or flashy web sites.
If Utah wants sustainable, livable communities in the face of tremendous population grown in the coming years, it must abide by trusted planning and zoning methods. This doesn't mean community members should rubber stamp whatever elected officials tell them is good for their community. They need to be active participants in established processes which, admittedly, are not perfect. But they remain a community's best option for smart development.