SALT LAKE CITY — In Utah's latest installment of residents vs. high-density growth, some in Tooele County have filed a lawsuit challenging the county's decision to reject a petition that would put a rezoning decision on the ballot.
Last October, county commissioners approved an agreement that will allow developers to plant a mixed-use development named Skywalk in an area that has traditionally been agricultural west of Tooele Valley Airport and south of state Route 138.
The development will incorporate 984 housing units — 116 detached homes, 186 townhouses, 168 large town home apartments and 514 main street style apartments over commercial buildings — in just under 250 acres. The development will also include space for parks, trails, schools and businesses.
Many in the rural town of Erda, which had a population of about 4,600 in the 2010 Census, have expressed concern about how the development will impact their country lifestyles.
"Kids, farm animals, horses and domestic pets will be affected by a substantial increase of traffic and drivers not used to this rural type of living," petitioners wrote in the complaint filed Feb. 4 in 3rd District Court.
"This concern will be both with current and all future houses built along this path in the development. There will be construction vehicles that will be driving through this road for the next 10 years while Skywalk is being developed."
Petitioners say they gathered 2,753 verified signatures but County Clerk Marilyn Gillette "refused to accept and file the petition" based on the county attorney determining the zoning changes were administrative and not legislative. Gillette did not respond to messages requesting comment.
The petitioners — who all live in an outlying area of Erda with only 36 homes — are seeking a judge's order declaring their referendum legally sufficient and placed on the ballot, as well as an award of attorney fees.
As northern Utah grapples with rapid growth, the Tooele County development dust-up is one of several that have happened recently.
In November, Holladay residents voted to block the development of the old Cottonwood Mall site. The Utah Supreme Court ruled the vote valid after city officials and developers had argued the zoning decision was administrative and not legislative. The city rejected the referendum but still printed the issue on the Nov. 6 ballot in case it was challenged in court.
Also last year, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams nixed the controversial proposed Olympia Hills development in Herriman after public outcry against the project from residents. The developer of that project has recently returned with a revised proposal.
With emotions high as Utah tries to combat the housing crisis, what is a reasonable way to grow?
Keith Bartholomew, associate dean in the University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning, discussed his take on Utah's growing pains and what he sees as a solution with the Deseret News.
"I think one of our struggles as we continue to grow is finding a rational way to handle growth at a regional scale because everything in our life here along the Wasatch Front operates at a regional scale. The economic system, transportation system, most environmental systems, water, air quality. These are all regional concerns. Unfortunately, we make development decisions at municipal or city level," Bartholomew said.
There is an urgent need for more housing, he said, citing statistics from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute that estimated a housing shortage of about 40,000 housing units in Utah over the next couple decades.
"And if we don't figure out how to provide housing and provide it in ways that are affordable to Utahns, we will find, I think, two things happening. One, that economic growth will slow. Firms will not want to move here or expand here if there aren't reasonable housing options for future employees. And two, our children and our grandchildren will start moving away because they will see restrictions on our housing opportunities," Bartholomew explained.
He said he thinks a potential solution could be to look at the housing issue and growth holistically rather than one project at a time.
"It's just this ranch in Tooele that's kind of in the crosshairs, or that plot of land along the East Bench and Olympic Cove, or another plot of land that's a former Cottonwood Mall site, just to site a couple recent controversies," he explained.
"We can look at them as kind of individual little pieces, and they're not stitched together in some sort of holistic approach. And when you do it that way, every one of them seems to have more cons arguing against them than pros arguing in favor of them, and so they frequently have to either get shelved or tabled or put aside because it was just one more housing project."
Bartholomew said he hopes the governor's office will create a regional planning authority "that can look at regionwide housing needs and make choices about where higher-density housing should go logically, in a way that at least makes sense for most of the regions' population."
He said places in the country that have regional planning authorities seek to provide "fair-share housing."
"You don't want to have all your affordable housing in one place." But they can also make decisions about concentrating growth where it makes sense to concentrate growth, Bartholomew said.
Rezoning agricultural areas at the fringes of metropolitan areas, like what's being done in Tooele County, is common, he said. But he expressed concern about focusing growth in agricultural land that is also away from public transit.
"If we just continue to leach out through the agricultural land with growth that could be located more centrally, next to transit, near jobs, and cultural and educational opportunities, then we're gonna lose our agricultural land, we're gonna pollute the air and jam up the roads. And that's not a future anybody wants to live in," Bartholomew said.
Petitioners who filed the lawsuit in Erda have declined to comment while the litigation is pending.
But resident Michael Buss told the Deseret News, "We have elected officials not acting in the interest of the people they are supposed to represent."
He said the Skywalk development is one example of how many Erda residents feel their wishes are being ignored by the county.
Buss is part of the Erda Community Organization, which he says he and other residents established as "a grassroots efforts to support and further the incorporation efforts of Erda as we felt we were not being heard by the county as far as what our desires were for how we wished the area to grow and develop."
An Erda Planning and Zoning Commission was dissolved several years ago, he said, and some residents feel that move "was merely an avenue for the county to take control of farms and vast rural zoning areas to develop counter to what would be in harmony with the area."
According to Buss, "numerous and rapid-fire developer agreements and rezoning being passed" caused some residents to turn to referendums on issues that impact Tooele County residents in terms of "resources and taxes, traffic and water issues that we all have to deal with."
Many residents of the area have emphasized that they're not against growth, but they are concerned about potentially irresponsible growth.
"We are not anti-growth. Growth is going to happen, but it should be in harmony with existing zoning. Property owners expected their neighborhoods to develop according to the county general plan when they made their investment. They were told that it would be done with consideration given to all resources, but zoning changes were made under the guise of 'affordable housing,'" according to the Erda Community Organization's website.
But developer Jay Nielsen has said the Skywalk development is meant to further the county's goals of bringing amenities to the area.
"The county's goal is to allow residents to continue their country lifestyle. If the county were to continue similar growth patterns as to what has been happening, the open space will be used up and lifestyles will have to change. Creating iconic centers at key intersections is the county's plan for enabling the continuation of the country lifestyle while bringing in amenities," he said last year.
In a statement Friday to the Deseret News, he said: "We want our private property rights acknowledged, but we want to be good neighbors and are trying to address the concerns of the petitioners. The county believes that the petition does not apply and is opposing the petition. For now, we are reaching out to the petitioners to see if their concerns can be met."