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How the tech industry grew a rural Utah town by 417 percent in just one year

VINEYARD, Utah County — Eleven acres.

That's what's left of Margaret Robins' 40-acre family poultry farm in Vineyard, which once flourished with alfalfa, wheat, corn and thousands of chickens.

Now, where the land used to stretch miles west toward Utah Lake, neighborhoods have sprouted. When Robins, 93, looks to the north and south, more homes.

A sparse, rectangle field down the street from her home is what's left, boxed in by development.

"My mind is boggled," she said, closing her eyes, holding them shut as she spoke. "I just can't believe how fast the town is growing. I look out the window and there's another development every day."

But as homes bear down on her land — even as developer after developer makes offer after offer — Robins holds on.

"I want it to stay open space," she said. "I'd rather have it that way than have it built out."

Why? Because open space is becoming more and more scarce as the 3,000-acre town of Vineyard barrels into a new era.

The town, nestled between Orem and Utah Lake and first homesteaded by grape farmer Shadrach Holdaway in 1860, has a long legacy as a small, rural town. Even after the town incorporated in 1989, its population would linger at just under 200 for 20 years.

But in 2013, its population doubled to 400. Another 200 came in 2014.

And then, from 2014 to 2015, Vineyard's population exploded from 617 to 3,195 — a 417 percent jump. The startling projection: In the next 30 to 40 years the population will boom to 40,000 people.

It's because the stars have aligned for Utah County developers: The national and state housing market is booming. The county's high-tech Silicon Slopes sector is surging, placing Utah County second in the nation for 2015 job growth, according to new data recently released by the U.S. Department of Labor.

But as Utah County's prosperity spills over into communities like Vineyard — close enough for convenience yet abundant with open land — longtime residents are faced with a rapid rural-urban shift, and all the growing pains that come with it.

"It's kind of hard to think back of what it used to be, but it's OK," Robins said. "What can you do?"


Robert and Cumorah Holdaway, 86 and 87, respectively, share a similar sentiment with Robins. Robert has lived in Vineyard his whole life. He and his wife have lived in their home for 56 years.

Like Robbins, the Holdaways have watched their town's farmland vanish. Where there were once rolling fields, cow barns and chicken coops, there are now neighborhoods, town houses, schools, gas stations.

Over the past 15 years, the Holdaways and others in their family sold all 350 acres of their dairy farm to developers for the usual reasons: The children who would have taken up the business moved on to different work. Farming became less and less practical to turn a profit.

"Without the sale of the farm we couldn't retire," Robert Holdaway said. "I think it was inevitable."

Now the only farm that remains in Vineyard is the 350-acre Clegg Farm, but town officials have anticipated it will eventually be rezoned to residential, according to the town's master plan.

Like Robbins, the Holdaways have accepted the change as a part of living in a prosperous, now more urban than rural county.

"I could feel bad, except we are enjoying the friendship of the people moving in," Cumorah said. "They're good people, so what is there not to be happy about? I shouldn't complain because people are busy, doing their jobs, and everyone seems to be doing OK."

The Holdaways and Robins' acceptance stems from the fact that change is not foreign to Vineyard's lifelong residents. Robins was 18 when she watched her town experience its first transformation.

"When Geneva came, it was as big as a change as what's happening now," noted Robins' 58-year-old son, David.

In 1941, the wartime Geneva Steel mill brought a hundred or so workers to the lakeside farmland, changing 1,700 acres into industrial land. Jump forward 50 years, however, and the mill would disintegrate into a hazardous wasteland.

To document these changes, town leaders compiled a memoir, published in 2000. On the cover of the scarlet-bound book, Vineyard is described as "a wellspring of tradition and change."

But at that time, the residents and town leaders had no inkling of just how much change Vineyard would experience over the next 15 years — and how much tradition would be lost.

"The quiet town is gone," Robert Holdaway said. "We've already transitioned from a small farming community to an urban area."

The transformation

The Geneva mill's assets were liquidated when it filed bankruptcy in 2002. In 2005, the mill's 1,700 acres were sold to Anderson Geneva, a sister company to Anderson Development, for $46.8 million.

It was a deal that marked another era of change for the small rural community. Vineyard would begin its transformation from agricultural-industrial to high-dense, suburban within the decade.

When Geneva Steel was sold, farms also began slipping into bankruptcy, and farmers began selling their land to developers.

Vineyard Mayor Randy Farnworth said that's when he knew major change was on the horizon.

"It's like a castle of cards. When one starts falling, then the rest fall," he said. "I could see the cards were going to fall where they are now. From then, I knew we had to take the town in this direction in order to survive."

After cleaning up the Geneva mill site, Anderson developers announced plans to transform the property. The project — dubbed @Geneva — was unveiled at the end of 2013, when Vineyard's population rested at roughly 400.

The vision: transform more than half of Vineyard's 3,000 acres into houses, apartments, town houses, stores, offices, schools. The developers would fill out the infrastructure as they went, planning to support 3 million square feet of office space, 2 million square feet of retail space and 5.5 million square feet of industrial space.

Now less than three years after @Geneva's plans were introduced, 600 acres of the steel mill property are left to sell. When build-out is complete — which @Geneva project manager Stewart Park expects will happen within 10 to 15 years — more than 27,000 residents are expected to be living in the area.

Today, about 30 percent of Vineyard is built out, but Farnworth said the entire town is projected to be developed in the next 30 to 40 years, and its population is expected to boom to least 40,000.

That's a 9,900 percent population increase from 2013.

'Growing pains'

Vineyard's story is one example of Utah County's extraordinary growth and the impact its prosperity can have on cities trying to keep up with housing demand.

"Vineyard is a microcosm of things to come here in the county as we grow," said Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee. "Its definitely going to affect every part of the county, as well, in some form or another."

Census numbers predict that Utah County will be the epicenter of Utah's population growth, gaining a larger number of people each year thanks to its thriving tech industry.

The number of Utah County jobs grew by 6.6 percent in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's three times faster than the national average of 1.9 percent.

The county's population currently rests at about 600,000, but officials expect it will reach more than 1 million people by 2040.

Housing pressures are also squeezing farmland throughout the county and the state. In 1987, Utah had 14,000 acres of orchards, but that number has dwindled down to just a few thousand acres, with Utah County — the state's most successful agricultural region — losing much of its prime agricultural land to new development.

"All available land is being gobbled up," said Utah County Commissioner Greg Graves.

Transportation and water infrastructure needs are among the top challenges of Utah County's cities as they work to keep up with demand, Graves said.

"Our cities, by our estimation, have over $600 million in shortfalls in what they need for their local roads to get up to minimum standards and accommodate the population," Graves said.

After Utah County voters last year rejected Proposition 1, a proposed tax increase to help pay for road improvements, Graves said Utah County officials will be looking at trying to implement another form of Proposition 1 to help pay for road improvements.

He noted water infrastructure maintenance issues are prominent in numerous cities, including Provo — which approved last week a five-year utility fee increase to help the city invest more than $60 million in improvements to its water system over the next 10 years. It's projected to increase the average water bill by a total of $780 a year by 2020.

On the other side of Utah Lake, Saratoga Springs is among other outlying communities that have experienced similar growth to Vineyard.

Since it was incorporated in 1997, Saratoga Springs' population has grown from 250 to more than 27,000, ranking it as one of the fasted-growing cities in the nation. It's projected to grow to more than 140,000 by 2060.

Now, in the midst of its growth, Saratoga Springs is facing water challenges. As housing in Saratoga Springs booms, so do residents' complaints of ongoing water infrastructure issues.

Pipe pressures have been spread thin as more houses are built, and the issue was aggravated earlier this month when a well failed beyond repair and reduced the city's secondary water supply.

Saratoga Springs leaders last week drew about $100,000 in emergency funds to buy a temporary water contract with Central Utah Water Conservancy District to increase its water supply until the city can complete about $4.8 million in water projects, including an additional pump to draw water directly from Utah Lake.

Water problems also stretch to smaller towns in Utah County. Fairfield, under threat of running out of water by fall, will hold a June 28 special election to let voters decide on a bond that could fund a new well.

Earlier this month, a well pump failed in Elk Ridge, damaging flow from the city's main water source and halting outdoor watering for an estimated five weeks.

So as Vineyard grows, will it be able to keep up with demand, or will it face its own challenges already rearing in its neighboring cities?

"As Vineyard grows and as they feel those pains, hopefully they can lean on some of the other cities who have gone through some of those growing pains and learn from the successes and failures," Lee said.

Planning for growth

When town officials began mulling the road and water infrastructure improvements needed to support @Geneva's massive project, Farnworth said "the light at the end of the tunnel was very bleak."

"We had no income coming in. How are we going to do this? How are we going to build this city?" he said.

But after working with @Geneva owners to develop a plan, town leaders created a Redevelopment Agency and let Vineyard bond for $300 million to pay for the mill's cleanup, and new water, sewer and road amenities. The debt will be paid off as new tax money grows from the project's development.

Over the past four years, the town's budget has already ballooned by about 275 percent — from about $826,000 to nearly $3.1 million.

Now, Farnworth said, town leaders' fears about Vineyard's growth have mostly dispersed, since the town's resources are on track to keep up with the growth. Developers are responsible for laying down the infrastructure as they go, and a deal was worked out with Orem to provide water services, he said.

To Farnworth, Vineyard won't make the same mistakes other cities have made, by not saving and planning ahead to maintain roads and water infrastructure on a regular basis.

"We've been really fortunate because we've watched other towns and cities and seen how they've grown," he said.

As far as possible property taxes or fee increases go, Farnworth said town leaders are trying to prevent any drastic hikes by planning for the future.

"There will always be that concern," Farnworth said, but he added that city leaders are already setting aside a percentage of residents' utility fees for upkeep of roads and sewer. "So when we get down 25 years, we'll have the money and we won't have to go after increases."

So as Vineyard heads into the future, Farnworth is confident it will handle its growth with grace.

"We're not just throwing things to the wind," he said. "We have the ability to make a great community. We really do. And we're really trying hard. We want to be our own. And if we're only halfway as successful as we want to be, we'll be very successful."

However, while roads and pipes are under control, Farnworth acknowledged there is an aspect of Vineyard life — it's agricultural heritage — that is vanishing rapidly.

Preserving history

In efforts to preserve what's left of Vineyard's legacy, Farnworth said the Town Council has formed a heritage committee. He said the committee is still "brand new," though, and it hasn't yet organized any initiatives, despite the fact that the entire town is already master planned for development.

Town officials are, however, in the midst of negotiations with Robins to buy her remaining 11 acres on the condition that it remains open space and expands the adjacent J. Rulon Gammon Vineyard Heritage Park, named after the town's first mayor.

But as property values rise with a new school being built nearby, so does the land's appraisal, Farnsworth said, so it could take some time to figure out a deal. The land could cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

"We want it to happen, but we just don't have the money right now," he said. "The only blessing we have is that Margaret wants it open space, and that she's willing to work with us."

Acknowledging the changes Vineyard has already endured, Farnsworth was frank about the reality of the town's future.

"We just are not going to have much left of the agricultural history here," he said. "You cannot sell your farm to a developer and expect him to keep its character, it just isn't going to happen. If (the heritage committee) wants to build a museum, I'm all for that. But as far as trying to keep the agricultural flavor, it's gone."

Some old tractors sit down the street from the Holdaways' home, but aside from them, there isn't much left to indicate evidence of the family farm. Cumorah Holdaway said whenever she gets the chance, she reminds the neighborhood youngsters of what Vineyard once was.

"I'm always on my soap box. I say, 'You have no idea what Vineyard used to be,' she said. "We'll never forget Vineyard's heritage. We'll never forget what it was."


Twitter: KatieMcKellar1