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Guest opinion: Local officials are key to making regional plans work

The Wasatch Front is now truly a single region and must begin acting like a region to solve some of its most vexing problems.

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A bicyclist rides in the bike lane Monday, June 1, 2015, in Salt Lake City.

A bicyclist rides in the bike lane Monday, June 1, 2015, in Salt Lake City.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Last week in an editorial on the shape of future land use disputes, the Deseret News editorial board concluded that the dwindling lands remaining to be developed along the Wasatch Front posed particular challenges that might best be addressed with processes that “contemplates impact on the entire region, not just the corner of land in question.”

The board noted, “We have long supported the creation of a strong and consistent planning apparatus like that encouraged by the Wasatch Front Regional Council in its Wasatch Choice 2050 campaign. It is apparent now more than ever that the land remaining to be developed will have an impact on those communities that already exist. A way to coordinate and cooperate more effectively must be instituted.”

As someone who has been involved in land use planning and regulation here for some 40 years, I have long believed this and worked to make it happen.

I think the communities in our area have done credible work trying to plan for their futures and putting effective land use regulations in place. Unfortunately there are also examples of some trying to go it alone, who don’t consider their actions in a larger regional context. There are recent examples of Wasatch Front communities each seeking to outdo their neighbors in attempting to land new super retail centers or office buildings or manufacturing plants. Most want subdivisions of large, expensive homes while leaving apartments and starter homes for someone else to worry about. Sometimes streets planned in one city do not match up with those in adjacent communities, or lack connectivity in their own.

The Wasatch Front is now truly a single region and must begin acting like a region to solve some of its most vexing problems. Anthony Downs, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution who studied cities around the nation, wrote some time ago, “… no locality can effectively isolate itself from the rest of its metropolitan region, because its destiny is inexorably bound up with what is happening there.”

So what can be done? Are there ways to deal effectively with the problems that come with growth and competition?

There may be, if we are willing to try things that sound radical to some, or even just apply some plain old common sense. 

We must be willing to coordinate and cooperate. Sounds simple enough, but it just doesn’t seem to come easily.

The issue is really one of governance, not government.

Effective regional governance strikes a balance that allows local control over issues best addressed by smaller local governments, such as public safety, licensing, street maintenance, garbage collection and local zoning, while promoting cooperation among local governments on larger issues affecting the entire region, such as highway and sewer investment, affordable housing, transit, air and water quality and economic development.

The Wasatch Choice 2050 plan, recently adopted by the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Mountainlands Association of Governments is perhaps the best way available at this point to achieve this level of collective vision and cooperation. While these two organizations are primarily transportation planning and coordinating agencies, they have the potential to accomplish the higher goal.

One of the key issues identified as being critical to the way any region grows is transportation. When you look closely at the different development patterns described in each of the alternate scenarios of the 2050 plan, it quickly becomes clear that the regional transportation system — the roads, highways, transit system and even walking and biking paths — is one of the chief factors.

Our planning organizations are governed by a board made up of local elected officials. Those officials also oversee the regulation of land use in their local communities. The connection is clear and should be coordinated. Cooperation with state agencies that actually receive and expend the federal dollars is also very important.

In recent months, the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Mountainlands Association of Governments have forged a new and stronger partnership. This new partnership includes UDOT and UTA, as well as Envision Utah, Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the associations representing cities and counties. This new partnership has resulted in formulation of the 2050 plan, which includes consideration of land use and development patterns.

The local leaders who voted to adopt the plan are now going back to their home communities and trying to make the plan happen through their actions at the local level. But it isn’t always easy, with hurdles often coming from their own residents.

Wilf Sommerkorn recently retired as director of regional planning and transportation for Salt Lake County. He currently serves on the Kaysville City Planning Commission.