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Opinion: The first step toward handling Utah’s relentless growth

As with most things these days, problems can’t be solved as long as people remain bitterly divided

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Astrid Tuminez, president of UVU, and Clay Christensen, president of the Mountainland Technical College, signed an agreement Thursday.

Astrid Tuminez, president of UVU, and Clay Christensen, president of the Mountainland Technical College, signed an agreement Thursday allowing certain MTECH students an easier path toward an associate degree.

Utah Valley University

A bunch of really smart people got together at Utah Valley University last week to talk about growth in Utah County, how to prepare for it, and how to plan so they have enough affordable housing, clean air and mass transit to keep it a place where people want to live.

A lot of smart people said a lot of smart things, but it took a politician to say what has to be said at almost every event focused on solutions to government-related problems these days.

That is, we need to learn how to get along with each other. Period. That is step No. 1, and it’s a big one. 

It’s why Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has devoted his year as head of the National Governors Association to urging people to “disagree better.”

But civility in planning for growth? That’s the world we live in.

“Maybe it’s the neighbor’s dog barking,” Utah Rep. John Curtis told the Growth Summit crowd. The thing to do would be to ring the doorbell, sit with the neighbor in his living room, present the problem and ask, “what can we do about it?”

Instead, he said, the first reaction often is to call the city, or even the mayor, to complain. Curtis, the former mayor of Provo, knows something about that. 

He wondered how many people call zoning officers when they notice a violation, rather than having a friendly and frank conversation? And how many people, in other aspects of their lives, act first, instead of reaching out? 

“I’m just suggesting we would do a lot better if instead of replying on social media and spreading the rumor we just heard, if we call that person up,” Curtis said, adding, “We’re not slowing down to get to know our neighbors and get to know the people that we work with and share our differences.”

What does all this have to do with growth and planning? The same thing it has to do with just about everything else that divides Americans these days — plenty.

Curtis said few issues can divide people quite like growth. He’s right. In my decades of following politics, I have learned that the nastiest political fights tend to take place at the levels of government closest to the people. Bring up the need for more apartments, rezoning plans for a neighborhood, the proposed route for a planned rail transit line or the idea of turning a golf course into a housing development and watch the fur fly.

Curtis said he learned that those issues tend to melt away when you ask what people think is most important for the long term, the next 20 to 50 years of their city’s life. 

“The No. 1 thing is we figure out how to agree with each other and to get along,” he said. Then we discover we have much more in common with our perceived enemies than we have differences. 

“We need to figure out how to go knock on somebody’s door, sit down with them and talk about our differences face to face, because the likelihood of resolving those in a positive way is so much better.”

As I said, a lot of smart people had a lot of good things to say during the summit. Utah County is the fastest growing county, in real numbers, in what was the fastest-growing state in the nation during the previous decade. And the growth continues. The Kem C. Gardner Institute estimates the county grew by 23,980 people between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, to a total of 707,602 people, which is catching up to Salt Lake County’s 1.2 million.

As Ari Bruening, chief executive officer of Envision Utah, said, the question for the future is “not if, but how we’ll grow.” This generation owes it to the future to plan carefully for all of this.

Much was said about the need for higher education and private business to work together to ensure good-paying jobs are filled. A highlight of the day came when UVU President Astrid Tuminez and Mountainland Technical College President Clay Christensen signed an agreement allowing graduates of the technical school in the fields of HVAC, electrical, plumbing and welding to earn an associate degree in business management at UVU in half the normal time.

Curtis said a lot of other things before excusing himself to return to Washington. He defended newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, describing him as someone who is “actually very humble and recognizes the hand of God in his work and in all of our work, and I think those are really good attributes.”

The congressman also sounded an optimistic note about the nation’s government, adding that he hears from constituents who believe things are worse than ever.

“I get to see the good side of Washington, and I’m just here to tell you that what you see on cable news and what you see in social media represents a tiny fraction of what actually happens in Washington, D.C., and I get to see hundreds of men and women, Republicans and Democrats, in Congress who wake up every morning and they don’t worry about what they’re saying on social media or what they’re going to say on Fox News or CNN,” he said. “They worry about how they can move the country forward.”

And yet, people seem obsessed with the divisions.

Curtis recalled the only time another member of Congress had the courtesy to come to him and explain, face-to-face, why he opposed one of Curtis’ bills.

“It’s really hard to be mad at him, right? Because he came, saw me, sat knee to knee, looked me in the eye ...”

Kind of as if he had told him his dog was barking too much.