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Protecting open space: The rush to save Utah land amid booming growth

Utah’s increasing urbanization raises key concerns

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Utah Open Lands is trying to raise funds to preserve a 26-acre parcel of land, including a section of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, and prevent development, near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights, pictured on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to Utah’s stunning landscapes and exploding economy, these two driving components that help shape the state’s quality of life are like boxers — at odds with one another and striving for dominance.

Wendy Fisher, executive director of Utah Open Lands, said it doesn’t have be that way, if planners, policymakers, elected leaders and residents are smart about Utah’s destiny in the coming decades.

“We are the victims of our own success,” she said, “so let’s not destroy the very things that have made Utah successful and a lot of that is embedded in Utah’s scenic and recreational opportunities.”

Just this week, the city of Cottonwood Heights voted to give $1 million to a campaign to save a 26-acre parcel of land at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon that had been destined for luxury homes on 11 lots.

The land abuts the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and is a popular access point.

“Their willingness to step up with a commitment to save this property means they are interested in preserving the quality of life for their residents and other people who value open space,” she said.

As the Wasatch Front grapples with population growth — three quarter of the state’s residents are crowded into a narrow swath of land — decision-makers are faced with finding balance between that growth and preserving open space.

The efforts to raise $3 million for the Utah Open Lands project via a tight deadline for land already under a development agreement was assisted by $500,000 in funding from the state’s LeRay McAllister Fund.

A nod to the importance of preserving open space for recreation, farming, watershed concerns and quality of life is also found in the budget recommendations of Gov. Gary Herbert, who recommended a one-time $40 million endowment for that purpose.

It’s not just grants, however, that secure acreage for future generations.

Ballot initiatives are becoming increasingly popular as land continues to give way to homes, businesses and pavement.

One report by NumbersUSA notes that in 2016, there were 26 land conservation issues on ballots in 10 different states, and years earlier, voters approved 46 measures to set aside $767 million to conserve farmland, parks, watersheds and other acreage.

NumbersUSA is an anti-immigration group that recommends reducing immigration to the United States to 250,000 people a year — to the 1950s and 1960s eras — pointing to the loss of open space and environmental degradation as a pressing concern for the country.

But Ari Bruening, chief operating officer for Envision Utah, said controlling growth through immigration reform or reduced fertility rates isn’t the answer.

“People ask why we can’t stop growing and what I would say is we grow because we have a high quality of life and strong economy, which means our kids can stay here and other people want to join us here,” he said.

“The only way to stop growth is not to have a high quality of life and a strong economy, and that is not where we want go.”

Utah is among the most urbanized states in the country with its vast majority of population on the Wasatch Front, and Bruening warned that planners must be careful about concentrating high-density housing in places where it makes sense — next to public transit, work centers, restaurants and other amenities.

Utah is trending, too, with fewer single family homes — a drop from 70% of the housing stock in 2010 to 50% at last count — with a younger generation that doesn’t want to spread out to the suburbs but instead wants the convenience of housing in close proximity to work, Bruening said.

“I don’t see anything that is going to change that trend.”

Fisher, whose campaign is still raising money for the 26 acres at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon, stressed that balance is key when it comes to preserving quality of life and the pace of development.

“We say we are not against growth, but simply for open space,” Fisher said.