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‘We want to keep farming’: These Utah farmers want to annex into North Salt Lake, but neighbors don’t want the 1,100-unit development it would bring

Heather Limon, owner of Cross E Ranch, shows where housing is going to be built next to her property in North Salt Lake on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Limon is a generational farmer who wants to celebrate and share the agricultural lifestyle with future generations. She is supportive of annexation of land to help bring future stability to her own property, but also supportive of allowing property owners to do what they want with their land.
Heather Limon, owner of Cross E Ranch, shows where housing is going to be built next to her property in North Salt Lake on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Limon is a generational farmer who wants to celebrate and share the agricultural lifestyle with future generations. She is supportive of annexation of land to help bring future stability to her own property, but also supportive of allowing property owners to do what they want with their land.
Steve Griffin

SALT LAKE CITY — A complicated annexation dispute is boiling between a tangle of governments over about 400 acres of unincorporated farmland northeast of the Salt Lake City International Airport and just south of North Salt Lake’s boundaries.

But it’s not a run-of-the-mill fight between neighbors and developers.

In fact, some farmers who’ve owned the land for generations want to sell their land to a developer so they can sustain their farming — and they want to annex in North Salt Lake because they say they’re sick of living in the “18th century” when it comes to city services, some even telling horror stories of being caught in a nightmare of bureaucracy when calling 911 for help.

While North Salt Lake officials welcome the annexation with open arms, some Salt Lake City neighbors and other farmers are dismayed by the proposed high-density development, named Misty River, of 1,100-units made up of apartments, town houses and single-family homes it would facilitate.

Right now, the Misty River/North Pointe annexation proposal is waiting for action from the Salt Lake County Council, which is expected to weigh in Sept. 10 on whether to support the annexation or stop it in its tracks.

The County Council last week decided to push the proposal to its September meeting after hearing from numerous farmers, neighbors, developers, Salt Lake City, North Salt Lake and airport officials — all with different reasons to support or deny the annexation.

‘We don’t want to stop farming’

For Heather Limon, it’s her and her sibling’s farm, Cross E Ranch, that’s been in her family since the ’40s. To supplement their cattle ranching business, Limon and her siblings use their homestead for private events and public festivals — with a corn maze, hay rides and pumpkin patch — where kids can see horses, goats, pigs and chickens, and experience the agricultural lifestyle.

Rather than oppose the high-density development, Limon supports it, as well as the annexation into North Salt Lake — seeing it as an opportunity to bring sewer and water and long-absent police services to her area.

“We want to be able to control our land,” she told the Deseret News. “We feel like we’ve worked hard enough and long enough to decide what we want to do with it.”

Limon and her brother, Dalon Hinckley, don’t see a 1,100-unit development as a threat to their farm — but rather she sees it as both a reality check for the neighborhood that she knows can’t stay the same forever and a way to help her family preserve their farm for future generations while keeping it financially feasible.

The 1,100-unit development would go at the south end of her cornfield and in place of a field owned by her neighbors and fellow farmers, LaVal and Teresa Drechsel. Limon, the Drechsels and other property owners within the roughly 400-acre area proposed for annexation into North Salt Lake have signed paperwork consenting to the annexation.

LaVal Drechsel told the Deseret News he grappled for years about what to do with his farmland, which has been in his family for five generations.

“We don’t want to stop farming,” he said, but he noted it’s become increasingly challenging to continue farming in the area, particularly because he trucks most of his hay and cattle out to rural areas anyway. “So we’ve really struggled with the idea of selling this ground. We’re talking about 174 years it’s been in my family.”

So to provide a more sure future for his daughter, who he hopes will become his family’s sixth-generation farmer, LaVal Drechsel said he more than four years choosing the right developer to sell his roughly 125 acres to. He said that will enable his family to continue farming and ranching in Tremonton or Logan.

He sees it as a way to provide a better future for his neighbors who want to continue farming while also helping housing challenges across the Wasatch Front — challenges that are already putting pressure on neighborhoods like his across the valley.

“I don’t care about money. I just want to continue doing what I’m doing,” he said. “And I want to leave here with my neighbors not hating me, and I’m trying to figure out what would be the best for them.”

Lack of services

Limon and the Drechsels’ reasons to support the annexation run the gamut — from frustrations with confusion between which agencies — Salt Lake City, North Salt Lake and Salt Lake County — actually provide police service to the area, to fears that if the area were to ever annex into Salt Lake City, their land’s future would be decided by airport officials, who don’t support development in the area to prevent any future noise complaints.

The Drechsels have experienced firsthand the nightmare of confusion their incorporated neighborhood has been in with regard to emergency services. LaVal told of how he watched his nearly 82-year-old grandfather die from either a heart attack or a stroke while 911 dispatchers struggled to figure out which jurisdiction they were in.

“We just sat there and watched helplessly,” he said.

Limon has dealt with the same thing. She told of having to drive a worker suffering from anaphylactic shock from a bee sting into Salt Lake City grounds to get a quicker response from city emergency responders.

Plus, Limon said any future expansion for her property or farm operations to help the festival grow are stymied by a lack of water and sewer connections. Hinckley told the County Council last week Salt Lake City has told her family it would cost up to $2 million to bring city sewer and water to their property.

“We don’t feel like that’s an economically reasonable thing,” she said, noting that North Salt Lake could provide water, and their utilities could “piggy back” off of the proposed development.

It’s a tangled governmental web for the farming families who just want to preserve their lifestyle in a time when it’s no longer financially feasible to make a living off of ranching unless they pick up and move elsewhere, Limon said.

“We want to stay,” she said, rubbing flies from the eyes of a mare named Teacup and her foal, Chip. “I want to keep sharing it with people.”

Looking behind her, across her cornfield to a sprawling view of Salt Lake City, Limon told of how the annexation would actually help farmers like herself stay in the area, even if it meant selling some pieces of land to help.

“This is what we want to preserve,” she said.

But opponents of the annexation see it as a threat to the character of their neighborhoods and another project that would only clog up their streets.

‘It’s going to cost us big time’

Claire Gillmor, who told the County Council she represents a family who owns the largest swath of land west of the proposed annexation area, said she and her neighbors don’t want to live near an 1,100-unit residential development, pointing out those who support it as “profiting in some way.”

“There’s nothing prettier than getting to the bank and cashing those checks — but there are people that it’s going to cost,” she said. “It’s going to cost us big time. And we believe it’s going to cost the county as well.”

Gillmor said increased housing development will impact air quality, bird refuges and other wildlife in the west area. She urged county officials to take more time before deciding whether to support the annexation.

“You cannot possibly see there are two centennial ranching operations out there,” she said. “You don’t see the eagle nests. You don’t see the bird refuge. The proximity to Farmington Bay. The county itself has its own ditch that runs right through there that carries treated water. ... This is a very strategic piece for the county. It’s a piece you have protected for us for years. And we need that protection again because cities develop. It’s what they do.”

Salt Lake City neighbors, too, oppose the development. Richard Holman, chairman of the West Side Coalition, urged county leaders to “hit the pause button,” saying “this is an opportunity for three governmental entities to work together to find a solution that works for everyone.”

Holman warned high-density development would bring “tremendous bottlenecks” on 2200 West and a two-lane section of Redwood Road.

“What’s being proposed is not a discreet development,” he said. “It affects other people. Where are these kids going to school? ... We can’t socialize the cost and privatize the profit. That doesn’t work.”

North Salt Lake officials argue their city would have the greatest impact, citing closer proximity to the area — which is why they say they would be responsible for what’s approved for the development.

What’s in the 1,100-unit Misty River proposal?

Developer Dave Tolman, of Xcel Development, told the County Council he’s under contract to buy the 125 acres from the Drechsels, arguing the Misty River project strikes the right balance for higher-density residential in a time of high housing pressures while also keeping space for parks and trails.

Tolman called Misty River a “unique answer to challenges facing the Wasatch Front today,” noting it would include affordable housing in an area within a fair distance to downtown Salt Lake City.

“We cannot afford to pass over areas that have been passed by because of difficulty of development,” he said.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City and airport officials oppose the annexation. Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers said City Council leaders negotiated to keep the same area out of Utah Inland Port Authority legislation that put the area under the control of the port authority, rather than the city.

“I just strongly urge you not to do this,” Rogers said. “To me, it just feels like another inland port where we’re giving away the residents’ viewpoints and their vision for what the area could be.”

While County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton spoke in favor of the annexation, calling it a “property rights issue” and noting she’s a “big believer in local control,” thus willing to consider annexations, other County Council members requested it be delayed so they could be present for the discussion.