A proposed residential development near the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake is again presenting city and county land planners with the challenge of navigating a forest of competing private interests with no obvious answer as to what would best serve the general public. Still, its eventual solution could be instrumental in informing the debate on future land development disputes. Others should be watching.

This debate is uniquely emblematic of the perpetual conflict between the demand for new housing and the preservation of those dwindling acres of agricultural open space in a fast-growing urban corridor. It’s a debate that will only increase as populations sprawl into new tracts of land.

The dispute, which involves a patchwork of farm and ranch land sandwiched between the Salt Lake International Airport and the boundaries of North Salt Lake, again points to the need for a consensus strategy among local governments for a growth vision that balances the overall interests of the greater community with the limited interests of the property owners directly involved.

In this case, two families that have long operated farm and ranch properties are seeking to have their land annexed into North Salt Lake to make way for a 1,100-unit residential development on parts of the property. The families say the deal would provide the financial means to allow them to maintain some existing agricultural operations where they are and to relocate others to more rural areas outside the Wasatch Front.     

The developer has proposed what appears to be a reasonable siting of high-density housing on 125 acres with room for parks, trails and open space. But some neighbors are not happy about the prospect of a population surge in an area already suffering from transportation congestion. Environmentalists are wary of the impact on wetlands and the stability of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. Airport managers aren’t thrilled by the prospect of facing a barrage of noise complaints from those who move into new homes directly beneath flight paths.

The matter is further complicated by the host of different governments with existing or potential jurisdiction. For decades, land planners had it relatively easy when addressing new development proposals. As the population increased and pro-economic development factions held sway on legislative bodies, developers faced few obstructions. Now, as we have seen in all corners of the Wasatch Front, proposed new developments inevitably meet with resistance from existing residents concerned with the impact on already congested schools, roads and other infrastructure. As these interests have accrued more political influence, they have forced more thorough planning efforts with greater public input, which is a positive development. As a result, large commercial proposals with huge economic forces behind them have been quashed, for better or worse, as in the case of the site of the former Cottonwood Mall in Holladay.

In this environment, planning agencies face a thorny traverse through a minefield of competing values every time a large development is proposed. We have long supported the creation a strong and consistent planning apparatus like that encouraged by the Wasatch Front Regional Council in its Wasatch Choice 2050 campaign. The proposed conversion of farming land north of the airport, given its fragile nature and strategic location, offers a strong example of how planners could benefit from a structure that dictates procedure for assessing and permitting new growth in a way that contemplates impact on the entire region, not just the corner of land in question.