Along with hundreds of city leaders across Utah and its Wasatch Front, Farmington Mayor Brett Anderson knows as well as anyone what haunts the debate over how in the world the rapidly growing state will confront its housing problems.

He knows firsthand how, inevitably, attempts to up density in a northern Utah city known for its agricultural land and suburban sprawl is met with pitchforks. How difficult it is to reconcile Utahns’ desires to safeguard their current quality of life with the reality that the state of over 3.3 million is already on track to exceed 5.5 million by the year 2060 — more than double the state’s population from the year 2000.

“You can imagine, Farmington has the word ‘farm’ in it,” Anderson told a panel of regional planners called the Wasatch Front Regional Council last week, “and people don’t always embrace change.”

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And yet, that day Farmington became the first city to see one of its housing developments become certified for meeting all four pillars the Wasatch Front Regional Council has outlined in its Wasatch Choice Vision, a plan based on widespread input from Utahns to help the state grow sustainably by orienting different housing types, including higher density housing, where it makes sense.

To win such a certification, a development must:

  • Increase availability and affordability of housing
  • Promote sustainable environmental conditions
  • Enhance access to opportunities
  • Increase transportation choices and connections
A rendering for The Retreat at Farmington Station, a development planned within Farmington’s North FrontRunner Station area plan. It is a 550-acre development that was recently certified by the Wasatch Front Regional Council that includes housing types, transportation options and other standards aimed at putting density where it makes sense so Utah can grow sustainably. | Evergreen Development, Architecture Belgigue, Inc., Farmington City

The Farmington North FrontRunner Station area plan hits all of those points. It’s designed on a 550-acre strip around the FrontRunner station that sits just west of I-15, where three major highways converge.

The project itself isn’t new. It’s been making its way through Farmington City planning processes for over a decade now — and 200 acres of the project is already built out. It includes Station Park, a commercial area south of the FrontRunner station that currently features a concentration of restaurants, shopping outlets and a movie theater.

But to the north is over 330 acres of open land that’s slated to be developed into more than 4,400 units residential units, including multi-family housing and townhomes, by the time the development is complete in the next 20 or so years. It also calls for over 2.4 million square feet of office space and 542,000 square feet of retail or other commercial space.

The residential units are estimated to bring 15,000 people to Farmington City. “Our city has roughly 27,000 right now, so that’s a big bump for our city,” Anderson said. “That will build us out. We’re going to be hitting around 45,000 when we’re built out.”

The highest density housing is concentrated closer to the train station and trails, Anderson said. “We’re trying to put it where it makes sense, where it would be helpful for the whole area, attractive to the people that want that kind of life, and at the same time preserve the more open field the further you get away from it.”

That’s not all. The plan also calls for a network of trails, pocket parks and bike paths, as well as eventually a “people mover,” or a “small scale automated guideway transit system,” to help connect people to the FrontRunner station. Farmington also intends to expand its Lagoon shuttle, which currently links Station Park to the Lagoon amusement park on the east side of the freeway. The station area plan qualifies Farmington, Utah Transit Authority and others to pursue funding to expand that to other areas.

Bri at Station Park, a residential development, is under construction in Farmington on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What makes Farmington’s plan different?

It’s an effort to build more housing — housing types that are more dense and more affordable than single family homes — in areas with transportation options other than a car. In other words, it’s an effort to plan for density where it makes sense. and where residents will have options to either live where they work or use transit to avoid further clogging freeways.

“This has been over a decade in the works and will probably be another decade to complete,” Anderson told the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

He added that there are plenty of Farmington residents that don’t want development. Instead, “they want us to minimize development in our city. They want half-acre lots and nothing else — or one-acre lots.”

So he said it has taken “a lot of courage from city councils that were before me, and that will take courage from the council that will continue on, to propose something like this for our city.”

The Wasatch Front Regional Council voted unanimously to certify the Farmington station area plan, applauding Anderson and other city officials for making the city’s plan the first in the state to achieve the certification.

“This is courageous,” Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, who also serves as chairman of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, told Anderson, adding there have been “a lot of doubters” who have said, “Cities will never do this. Cities are against growth. … You guys are proving them all wrong.”

Though Farmington’s project has been in the works for years, the station area plan certification process stems from a new Utah law passed earlier this year aimed at helping the state tackle its housing shortage and affordability crisis.

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The law, HB462, among other measures, requires cities with a “fixed-guideway public transit station” like a TRAX, FrontRunner or bus rapid transit system to develop a station area plan.

Those plans, which are intended to increase housing availability and affordability as well as offer a range of transportation choices, are then reviewed by metropolitan planning organizations like Wasatch Front Regional Council. Additionally, adopting a station area plan is one way a city can qualify for prioritized state transportation or local match program funding.

There are 88 station areas along the Wasatch Front. With Farmington’s certification, that leaves 87 to go. But there are more coming, with 26 station area plans being prepared for adoption by their cities. Thirty-eight stations have plans that predate HB462. However, there are still 23 stations where planning has not yet been initiated, according to the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

“If I could be so bold,” Anderson said. “We hope to modify the biblical statement that the first shall be last. We hope that we’re not the last. We hope that the first shall be the first, and there will be many that follow.”

A rendering for Sego Townhomes, a development planned within Farmington’s North FrontRunner Station area plan, part of a 550-acre development that was recently certified by the Wasatch Front Regional Council that includes housing types, transportation options and other standards aimed at putting density where it makes sense so Utah can grow sustainably. | Sego Homes, Farmington City

Can this actually help Utah’s housing crisis?

Anderson, in an interview with the Deseret News, acknowledged he’s but one mayor, Farmington is but one city and Utah is but one state in a nation that’s grappling with a reeling housing market and acute affordability crisis.

While mortgage rates over 7% these days are putting downward pressure on the market, prices are still at record highs. In Utah, one of the fastest growing states in the nation, experts say prices may dip in the coming year or so, but they still expect the state’s housing affordability problems to persist.

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“Do I feel like I’m throwing a cup of water on a fire?” Anderson told the Deseret News, looking down at a tiny paper cup sitting in front of him. “I do feel like I’m throwing a cup of water on a fire.”

The factors influencing the U.S. housing market are complex, from land costs to labor and material costs — all out of cities’ control. What cities can control, however, is planning and zoning, which can help — only help — facilitate home building.

A key underlying issue that’s fueled Utah and the nation’s home price increases, even before the pandemic frenzy over the last two years, is the simple fact that demand continues to outpace supply. Simply not enough homes are being built, and as prices have escalated, so has demand for cheaper housing types like apartments and townhomes.

Farmington’s certification is the first of dozens more plans across the Wasatch Front that “should hopefully facilitate growth in places where the growth makes sense, where there’s infrastructure in place,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. He noted other cities including Sandy, Ogden and Provo have forthcoming station area plans.

Anderson said it makes sense to put higher density housing like apartments near transit and commercial hubs, and yet “that’s what makes some people in our city mad.”

“‘Don’t you dare put apartments in Farmington. You’ve destroyed our city. We hate you.’ That’s the kind of emails I get,” Anderson said. But he argues it’s “the mix that works,” meshing different housing types with commercial and transportation options, that helps build a community rather than continuing to sprawl unsustainably.

“We have to be more open-minded and allow a different type of housing option to be in our city. It’s not going to be just single-family homes on half-acre lots. Those days are gone,” he said.

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Confronted with impending growth — most of which has been historically homegrown — cities across Utah are going to have to grapple with that reality. Ironically, resisting that growth, continuing to build expensive single-family homes with no other transportation alternatives, continues to feed the problems that Utahns hate: traffic congestion and housing unaffordability.

“As our cities continue to build out, we’re going to have to wrestle with that now, or the cities that resist are going to have to wrestle with it later,” Anderson said.

And yet, these days, even townhomes in Utah run in the $400,000 range. That’s not affordable, Anderson acknowledges. But if more cities do their part to help increase supply and pave the way for more housing types, that can help meet demand. One development at a time.

“If all the cities are doing it, then it starts to make a difference,” he said, adding that a Farmington resident once asked him, “Why do we have to do it? Just let the other cities do it.”

“I was like, ‘That’s not a fair answer.’ It can’t just be, ‘Let them deal with the problem.’ We all have to deal with it,” Anderson said.

It’s much easier for city leaders to buckle to outcry in the name of listening to their constituents, even though voices who are struggling to find a place to live may not show up to a city council meeting packed with angry neighbors. But it’s also important to plan carefully, to propose density in common sense areas and help focus the conversation on building a community rather than just another apartment complex here or there, Anderson said.

His message to other city officials? Be leaders, and be courageous.

“The more that we all do this, the easier it is for all of us to do this,” Anderson said. “I know that doesn’t sound all that profound ... But the more people do this, I think it’s helpful for all residents in our state to start seeing these are the solutions.”

A man walks to his train at Station Park in Farmington on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. A view of Bri at Station Park, a residential development, is pictured behind him. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News