PROVO — Utah County residents overwhelmingly believe ongoing, explosive population growth will drag down their collective quality of life and they rate traffic congestion, poor air quality and “crowding” as the leading degradation factors.
That’s according to new data gathered from over 11,000 participants in an 18-month study to identify strategies to manage an expected 1 million new Utah County residents by 2065. Surveys and workshops also collected residents’ opinions on the best new approaches to residential development, transportation and resource management to accommodate the population surge.
Planning group Envision Utah is overseeing the Valley Visioning study, launched in late 2018, which mirrors recent work done for the Legislature that focused on the Point of the Mountain area that straddles Utah and Salt Lake counties.
Envision CEO Ari Bruening said the data reflects that residents share many of the same concerns about the negative impacts of growth and appear ready to support changes to minimize those consequences.
“The summary of what we heard from participants was loud and clear,” Bruening said. “People in Utah County are ready to do things a little bit differently in light of the growth they’re seeing. More housing options, urban centers and more transportation options.”
While 50% of respondents said they would prefer to live in suburban-like communities with low-density or resident-only settings, 42% see walkable suburban, low-density urban settings and urban mixed-use communities as the better living environment.
Study results also reflected Utah County residents’ ranking of the priorities that need to be addressed amid the population boom. Managing water, improving transportation, reducing air pollution and improving education were the top-ranked issues, receiving similar scores from participants.
Bruening said residents, overall, are supportive of creating more transportation options and prioritized that effort ahead of reducing traffic congestion. And he noted the majority of study participants showed a willingness to support a greater mix of single-family, town house and multifamily housing development.
Projections by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute anticipate that a full third of the expected 3 million new residents who will call Utah home in the next 50 years will reside in Utah County. And Utah County could surpass Salt Lake County in total population by 2065 — a swap that’s sure to alter the dynamics of the entire Wasatch Front.
The Valley Visioning project is aiming to anticipate how that influx will impact the county’s needs in housing, employment, education, recreation and transport. The goal, according to Utah County leaders, is to stay ahead of that curve and maintain the quality of life that has become one of Utah’s biggest selling points.
Utah Valley Chamber President/CEO Rona Rahlf said she’s met with numerous groups as part of the study effort and found some people are surprised to find out that the main factor that will drive Utah County’s population surge is self-created.
“Sometimes I have to explain this is about us, our children and our grandchildren,” Rahlf said. “Kids are growing up and staying here and in a lot of cases, even those that move out of state end up returning to Utah.
“We want our families together and we do a good job of keeping them here.”
Bruening said projections indicate the lion’s share of Utah County’s expected growth — about 85% — will be generated from within. A 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report highlighted that unique demographic factors are at play in Utah County, making it notable even among communities with the nation’s leading birthrates.
”Utah County stands out because it has both a large population of more than half a million and a high ratio of births to population, ranking fourth on the list of counties with more than 50,000 people,” the report reads.
When the Valley Visioning effort launched, Natalie Gochnour, Gardner director and associate dean of the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business, noted that two primary factors will continue to drive the growth of Utah’s second-most populous county.
”It really comes down to proximity and land availability,” Gochnour said. “Right now, there are about 230,000 acres of developable land in Utah County while Salt Lake County is down to 30,000 to 40,000 acres.
“When businesses and residents locate to Utah County, they get the less-expensive housing and commercial real estate but still have easy access to the arts, culture and entertainment amenities centered in Salt Lake City.”
Rahlf said the Utah Valley business and education communities seeded the study effort, recognizing the urgent need to identify and implement a comprehensive growth plan before it was too late. Rahlf noted Utah County plays host to a growing number of emerging tech companies and said that dynamic was also helping drive the impetus to plan carefully for the new population.
Many economists have highlighted that explosive growth in Silicon Valley beginning in the mid-1990s has contributed to a plethora of problems in the area including exorbitant housing prices, severe traffic and a lack of sufficient public transit options. That’s an outcome Rahlf said Utah County leaders are looking to avoid.
“I think what we watched happen in California speaks to the why behind the Valley Visioning effort,” Rahlf said. “If we don’t get into the right groove we could end up like Silicon Valley. We can learn from what they’ve done, the good things and the mistakes. This effort is focused on learning and working together as a unified group ... which is the best path forward to get an overall understanding of the coming impacts and how to best prepare for them.”
Bruening said next steps for the Valley Visioning project will center on bringing the findings back to stakeholder groups to begin crafting a set of planning strategies that will aim to achieve the goals highlighted in study results. That work, he said, should be completed in April.