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Wall-to-wall cities

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Utah State Capitol, Jan. 25, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah State Capitol, Jan. 25, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

The drive to incorporate a new city called Millcreek, which voters in the area will decide in November, contains many familiar echoes.

Proponents say they want a bigger say in matters that affect their neighborhoods, they want more control over planning and zoning decisions, they want true representation and they want to preserve the borders of what they believe ought to be a separate community of interest.

Opponents fret over adding another layer of government and warn about rising taxes.

This scene has played itself out again and again over several decades in Salt Lake County as a growing population has pushed communities once separated by fields closer together. The Legislature has tried to deal with the issue by allowing townships to form within unincorporated areas and by making annexations as democratic as possible, and still the march of the cities continues.

State lawmakers have not done the one thing that would provide the most intelligent solution to the problem — enact legislation that would divide the county into wall-to-wall cities.

The absence of such a solution is municipal Darwinism, in which the fittest areas survive as desirable areas for annexation or incorporation, and the rest try to make do in a dwindling and increasingly far-flung unincorporated patchwork. In this case, the fittest areas are those that contain profitable commercial or industrial ventures, which provide lots of tax revenue and demand relatively little in the way of city services.

The unfit areas are residences. No matter how beautiful the homes or wealthy the homeowners, these alone do not generate the kinds of taxes that make it worthwhile to provide police and fire protection, animal control and other services. And so, as the list of cities has grown, pockets of residential areas remain forever undesirable and increasingly difficult for the county to serve.

Years ago, a county official described how snow plows "have to pick up their blades and drive through Sandy, then clear some streets in an unincorporated spot and pick up their blades again and drop them in the next unincorporated area."

The recent creation of unified police and fire districts have greatly alleviated the problem of providing emergency services to these areas. However, even in a county governed by council members who represent geographic districts, it remains true that unincorporated residents typically are represented by someone whose district is so large their needs get lost in a jumble of demands from others.

Small wonder, then, that some people in Millcreek want to incorporate before the tax-producing businesses in their area are annexed somewhere else and they are left without other options.

But even if they succeed, their new city would provide only another patch in the haphazard quilt of Salt Lake County's urban landscape. It wouldn't solve the problem of misfit neighborhoods that, absent some legislative solution, won't ever have control over their own planning and zoning, or a representative who looks after their interests alone.

That will take real leadership in Utah's Capitol Building.