Growth vs. quality of life: Is harmony possible? This Utah valley is searching for answers
Booming Cache County has a rich agricultural history. Can that be preserved as Logan thrives?
Cache Valley in northern Utah — home of the bustling college city of Logan but also over a dozen rural, agricultural towns — is a microcosm of what’s happening in the West.
Cache County is growing. Rapidly. Last year, it ranked among the top five fastest growing counties in Utah, which sat atop the nation for its booming population growth the past decade.
But perhaps even more acutely than counties along the Wasatch Front, Cache County is facing its own unique challenges along with its growth.
Cache Valley fosters a highly agricultural identity, with a rich farming history. Even today, Cache remains Utah’s biggest dairy producer. However, as its population has boomed, so has housing development, putting tremendous pressure on farmers and, for that matter, the rest of the valley’s open space, even though the small-town, country feel is likely what draws people in the first place.
Perhaps an incident last fall explains best what’s happening in Cache Valley right now. Someone defaced a sign for a multi-unit housing development in Hyrum with the message: “Go away, we miss horses.”
“Although there is never justification for vandalism,” Marc Ensign, of Paradise, wrote for CacheValleyDaily.com, “its message seems to capture the sentiment of many valley residents who have found themselves in a wake of expansion they don’t like or understand.”
Concern and interest in Cache County’s future brought long-time residents, big- and small-business owners, politicians, and other community members together Tuesday for a discussion about where the valley goes from here.
The question on everyone’s minds: How does Cache County continue to grow and thrive while also maintaining its quality of life and rural character?
For the discussion, the Deseret News and Utah Policy partnered with Malouf, a thriving Logan-based lifestyle and wellness company, to host a community forum titled “Lessons from Smart Growth.”
The forum at Malouf’s headquarters included a panel discussion moderated by Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Deseret News’ Church News and assistant editor of the Deseret News, between Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan; Utah State University President Noelle Cockett; Logan Mayor Holly Daines; and Sam Malouf, Malouf Companies’ president and CEO.
Cockett said Utah State University, home of the Aggies, currently has over 17,000 students in Logan, giving the city its college town reputation that’s landed it on numerous national lists. The young student population has helped Logan and Cache County grow, but it’s also led to conflicts with neighborhoods, “especially when we recruit from out of state,” Cockett said.
But Cockett said she “loves” being able to call Logan a “college town. It conveys something that not every place has. It signals a community.”
She also noted while some USU students may not at first intend to stay in Cache Valley, many do.
“The people may come because of the university, but they fall in love with this place,” Cockett said. “The beauty draws them, but the people keep them.”
Malouf, an Aggie himself, said it’s the people who make Cache County a unique place. “People are special here,” he said. “People care a lot here, and I think people want to get to work here.”
Wilson, a third-generation local business owner and car dealer, agreed that Cache’s people make it special. But successful local businesses also bring “wonderful opportunities with high-paying jobs” that enable residents to take care of their families.
Still, Cache Valley faces plenty of challenges, the panelists said, especially in today’s red hot housing market, with prices that have skyrocketed statewide, especially over the last two years. Logan and the rest of the county have not been immune to those soaring costs.
“I think it’ll fix itself as time goes on, but right now it’s fairly acute,” Cockett said.
Daines, Logan’s mayor, said unless Logan and Cache Valley “densify” and make better use of its infrastructure, “we are going to sprawl out through our beautiful valley and lose what we treasure.”
The question, Daines said, is “How do we do that?” especially when so many residents oppose development. The mayor noted that while Logan has seen its fair share of “outsiders” moving in, a majority of the city’s growth in recent years has come “from our own children and grandchildren.”
“If we want places for them to live, we need to think carefully about how we zone our communities,” Daines said, noting Logan city leaders have decided it makes sense to have higher density in the downtown area.
“Those are the key issues,” she said. “We need to densify so we don’t just sprawl over our beautiful farmland.”
Cache County’s rich recreational opportunities — with Beaver Mountain and Cherry Peak ski resorts and plenty of hiking and biking trails — are also a big draw that need to be preserved, Daines said.
Conversations are in play to decide “how do we conserve some of this open space, this quality of life? And it’s something we’re probably going to have to pay for,” the mayor said. She added that Cache County residents need to start asking themselves, “What do I value, and do I value it enough that I’m willing to pay something?”
In an interview with the Deseret News after Tuesday’s panel discussion, Daines said a group of community leaders is exploring the possibility of putting a conservation bond on the ballot. She said it’s too soon to say what the bond amount would be or what areas would be preserved.
“Within the next couple of weeks they’ll be putting out a survey just to judge the public’s interest,” she said. “It’s like, ‘OK, is it worth giving up a night of pizza and movies for your family in order to (preserve open space).’ ... Again, we all value it, but how do you preserve it?”
Plus, the county has no shortage of “water problems,” Wilson said, that have intensified as the West remains gripped in a generational drought.
After the meeting, David Zook, Cache County executive, expressed appreciation for the discussion.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re forgotten about, we’re a little bit off the Wasatch Front,” Zook said, “but we feel like we have something good happening here.”
In addition to the effort to study a possible conservation bond, Zook told the Deseret News he plans to kick off a task force focused on the housing crisis in coming weeks.
“We have about two dozen leaders from a variety of industries, we have people advocating for the homeless, we also have home builders and realtors and people in education,” Zook said. “We have a good cross section of perspectives that we’re bringing together.”
He said the task force will be asked to spend 60 days to come up with recommendations at multiple levels.
“What can the cities do? What can the state do? What should we go to our federal delegation with? What do we need to be talking to our citizens about? What should the private sector be doing?” he said. “We’ll be looking at solutions that can address our housing crisis here because we have a major problem.”
Five years ago, Zook said Cache County’s average home price was around $230,000. Now it’s $450,000.