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From housing to water, Utah must reckon with its growth problems. So what should we do?

Take this survey to help shape Utah’s future

SHARE From housing to water, Utah must reckon with its growth problems. So what should we do?
Braen Cublillos plays with his daughters Silvana Cubillos and Violeta Cubillos at a park in Vineyard, Utah.

Braen Cublillos plays with his daughters Silvana Cubillos and Violeta Cubillos at a park in Vineyard on Aug. 11, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah’s growth is already here. There’s no stopping it.

The latest population estimates released Thursday show Utah added more than 61,000 people between July 2021 and July 2022 — the state’s largest spike in absolute growth since 2006. That puts the state’s population at more than 3.4 million.

There’s also a shift happening. Historically, most of Utah’s growth has been homegrown, from Utahns having babies and growing their families. But in that year since July 2021, people moving here (or net migration) accounted for 62% of the state’s new residents. Natural increase (child births vs. deaths) accounted for 38%.

That growth hasn’t been without growing pains. Utah’s housing affordability crisis is at an all time high. Even though high interest rates have thrown cold water on what’s been an overheating housing market, Utah’s housing experts don’t expect the state’s affordability issues to go away, mostly because of the state’s strong job economy and consistently rapid population growth, compounded with a stubborn housing shortage.

But even though there aren’t enough homes to house Utahns, housing developments consistently face pushback, especially from those who already own their homes and don’t want to see their neighborhoods change.

New housing in Vineyard is pictured on Aug. 11, 2021.

New housing in Vineyard is pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There are also traffic woes, concerns about water and overcrowding at state and national parks, trail systems, ski resorts and other recreational gems that make people love Utah in the first place.

“Population growth is a result of all the great things we love about Utah ... but that growth then threatens all the things that we love about Utah,” said Ari Bruening, CEO of Envision Utah.

Help shape Utah’s future

Utahns these days are more concerned about growth than at any point in the last 25 years, according to an Envision Utah survey earlier this year, with 42% of respondents saying they think future growth will make the state worse. Of them, 13% said “a lot worse,” and 30% said “a little worse.”

Now, Envision Utah, a nonprofit focused on planning for Utah’s future, wants to ask Utahns what should be done about it.

“We want to engage Utahns and understand what ideas they would support to accommodate the growth and maintain all the things we love about Utah,” Bruening said.

Envision Utah has launched a new survey, titled “Guiding Our Growth.” It asks Utahns to spend four minutes to share their ideas about how the state should tackle its growth, and what they think should be done to address the challenges that worry them most. More than once, the survey tells respondents it’s “OK to dream big.”

Bruening said Envision Utah will leave the survey open until February of next year, then the results will be used to create “a set of scenarios for how Utah can grow, analyze those scenarios for their impacts on the things Utahns told us matter most to them, and share the scenarios with the public next spring, when we’ll ask everyone to tell us what path we should follow.”

Envision Utah will also share the survey with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, eventually to inform a set of “big moves” such as policy decisions or infrastructure investments to help put Utahns’ wants into action. The final results will be released next fall, Bruening said.

Given Utahns’ anxieties about growth, it’s a “good time for us to get together and have a conversation and talk about what we love about Utah, what we hope we preserve and keep as our state continues to grow, and what solutions and what ideas we have to address the things that concern us,” said Laura Hanson, state planning coordinator for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.

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The sun begins to set on new construction in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Why can’t we just stop growth?

Hanson and Bruening said they’ve frequently heard frustrated residents ask why leaders can’t simply stop or slow the growth.

However, they said that question ignores the fact that overtime a majority of Utah’s population growth has been homegrown — from our own kids and grandkids. And even though recently in-state movers have been contributing to a larger percentage of the state’s growth over the past year, it’s not as if the state can close its borders.

And by the way, many of Utah’s in-state movers are returning Utahns, people who were born here and lived out of state for a time before deciding to come back.

Hanson said there simply aren’t many “levers to pull” to stop Utah’s growth or even slow it down.

“We could stop having as many babies. Or we could lower our life expectancy, which is not my first choice,” she said.

For in-migration, movers come here for Utah’s relatively affordable cost of living compared to other states like California, its abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, its family friendly neighborhoods and more.

“People are going to keep coming, so the things we have to (control that) are increase cost of living, which I feel like really only hurts existing residents,” Hanson said. “Maybe we stop offering business incentives, but that limits the number of job opportunities for existing Utahns. I mean, we really just don’t have a lot of great tools to slow it down.”

All this is why “sticking our heads in the sand and wishing the growth away and saying, ‘Not here, not anywhere,’” isn’t an option, Bruening said.

“There’s no way to just close the door and keep the growth out,” he said. “Growth is going to happen. The real question is how should the growth happen and what kind of place will we leave for our kids.”