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No, Utah County does not have to choose between preservation and growth

With Mount Timpanogos in the background, a FrontRunner train heads south through the Lehi area of Utah County on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Earlier this month, the Deseret News ran a guest opinion piece by Andrew Skabelund, in which he argued that the rapid development of Silicon Slopes in north Utah County comes at the cost of Utah County’s value as agricultural land. He cites an interesting fact (originally credited to Jared Farmer) which I had not known previously:

“(T)he Native Americans living in Utah Valley did not see the mountains as the primary feature of the landscape; instead, their perspective was dominated by Utah Lake and the Provo River, which — though hard to believe now — were abundant sources of food,” Skabelund wrote. “In fact, it was fishing expeditions to Utah Valley that kept the first pioneers alive in the Salt Lake Valley.

“As Utah Lake lost its vibrant productivity, due in large measure to overfishing, industrial pollution and watershed disruption from irrigation and overgrazing, it also lost its cultural significance,” he continued. “Mount Timpanogos became the dominant cultural landmark for most Utah residents, and if you’ve grown up here, it’s a bit shocking to learn that our lake was anything but some smelly, murky carp aquarium.”

I agree with Skabelund that Utah County’s growth has come at great cost to the natural environment, and that this growth has not necessarily come with an increased standard of living for the valley’s residents. I, too, miss the orchards that have been paved over with soulless strip malls, and wish the Provo River could sustain robust wild trout populations into Utah Lake.

Where I disagree with Skabelund, however, is believing that the choice between preservation and growth is an either-or proposition. What is required is not to curtail growth, but rather to grow sustainably.

Many residents of Utah County understand values of prudent planning, and of making choices today that will result in blessings tomorrow. It is sad, therefore, that city councils and planning commissions throughout the valley appear to eagerly accept whatever developers wish to build, with little forethought to how these developments will impact future growth.

The interchange of SR-92 with I-15 in Lehi was in the middle of a yearslong construction project when I moved away from Utah in 2010. When I moved back in 2019, it was again in the middle of a yearslong construction project. One might reasonably ask why UDOT cannot plan more than 10 years in advance, when its civil infrastructure is designed to last for 50 or 75 years.

The true answer is that Silicon Slopes was not in the plan. Maybe it should have been, or maybe planning officials should have considered how the placement and design of these office facilities would affect traffic and air quality before blindly approving whatever was set in front of them.

A freeway lane operating at full capacity can carry roughly 2,000 vehicles per hour. FrontRunner operating at its full design capacity could carry 6,000 people per hour. Utah County planners need to stop seeing the FrontRunner as a novelty that moves a few people who don’t want to drive, and instead see it as the centerpiece of the county’s transportation infrastructure. There is a FrontRunner Station at the heart of Silicon Slopes. The nearest things to it are a golf course and 22 acres of parking lots.

Current development practices in Utah County are a smorgasbord of missed and incomplete opportunities like this. The UVX bus system is a fabulous project that has earned national attention for its runaway success; all in spite of a major automobile dealership being the nearest business to fully three of the system’s 18 stops. Home developers in Pleasant Grove and Springville have been building attractive and popular semi-detached or fully detached homes on small-footprint lots; neighborhoods like this make it easier for residents to walk to schools, shops or transit and also conserve water by eliminating excessive lawn space. But these particular neighborhoods are hemmed into former industrial or agricultural lots without access to any of these additional community resources.

By 2050, more people are projected to live in Utah County than in Salt Lake County. Continuing to build large single-family homes, strip malls, freeway lanes and office parks dominated by parking will destroy what is left of our water and air quality. But there things each city should do to grow sustainably:

  1. Develop a master transportation plan that prioritizes active transportation and public transit.
  2. Require that new developments contribute to this plan in their designs. To help, cities in Utah County should eliminate minimum parking requirements.
  3. Build housing for families of all sizes, structure and incomes.
  4. Implement tax incentives that promote higher density developments around transit stations and in the city core. A land value tax would use the power of the market to accomplish these objectives.
  5. Implement an urban growth boundary to change the economic incentives that favor unsustainable sprawl.

We cannot, in fact, eat silicon. We might be able to have our silicon and still eat our apricots long into the future, if we can make it a priority to do so.

Gregory S. Macfarlane is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Brigham Young University.