Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature has been advancing legislation focused on breaking down barriers for housing development in what legislative leaders say is a quest to help build more affordable housing.

But with one bill in particular, it’s turned into an ugly fight.

With SB84, Summit County officials are accusing lawmakers of doing a “favor” for a specific housing developer and usurping local control with surreptitious legislative maneuvering to avoid transparency.

“This horrible assault on local communities’ rights of self-determination is a blemish upon fair, open and transparent government,” said Summit County Council Chairman Roger Armstrong in a statement issued earlier this month, after the bill won legislative approval. “The Utah Legislature should be ashamed.”

However, the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, is accusing Summit County of being in “violation of state law”’ for not adopting a housing and transit reinvestment zone at Kimball Junction.

That’s even though the Utah Department of Workforce Services issued Summit County a notice of compliance on Nov. 30 for its moderate income housing plan. However, the county also faced a Dec. 31 deadline to submit a separate proposal to create a housing and transit reinvestment zone. While the county did not submit a proposal, it did include in its moderate income housing plan that the county was willing to consider creating a housing and transit reinvestment zone as a strategy.

“Although Summit County did not submit a proposal to create an HTRZ, Summit County is nevertheless in full compliance with state law,” Armstrong argued.

That’s not how Snider sees it, so he opted to take action in legislation, and behind-the-scenes fights have since spilled into the public eye.

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The Woodward Apartments are above garages and other facilities in Summit County on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Spot zoning?

The bill at the center of the controversy, SB84, could sidestep Summit County’s land use process to approve an amendment to an already existing development agreement to allow the owner of the Park City Tech Center at Kimball Junction, Dakota Pacific Real Estate, to build a high-density, mixed-use project with mostly market-rate housing on the property.

The latest iteration of Dakota Pacific’s proposed plan includes 727 residential units. Of that, 490 would be market rate units and 237 that would be income deed restricted, according to Summit County documents.

“This is the first time in the history of the Utah State Legislature that it has ‘spot zoned’ a specific property to benefit and enrich a specific developer,” Janna Young, interim county manager, wrote in a staff report to Summit County Council on Wednesday.

The bill has already won legislative approval from both the House and the Senate, and currently awaits Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature or veto. Cox’s office said this week he was still reviewing the bill.

Summit County officials are urging the governor to veto the bill, but in the meantime they’re proceeding with their regular process while they continue to consider Dakota Pacific’s proposed project, including two public hearings scheduled for 5 p.m. on March 1 and March 8 at Ecker Hill Middle School, 2465 Kilby Road, Park City.

The advocacy group Friends for Responsible Development is encouraging Summit County residents to attend the public meetings. It has also circulated a petition titled “Stop Dakota Pacific (Again)!,” which as of Thursday had received over 1,600 signatures.

“Unfortunately, in 2022 and again this year, John Miller and Dakota Pacific have worked the back halls of the Utah State Capitol in an attempt to force Summit County to approve their project,” the group said in a statement. “The Utah State Legislature — in a move that is 100% corrupt and beyond egregious — seized Summit County’s land use authority when it approved SB84. The legislation is specifically targeted to enrich one developer, Dakota Pacific, at the expense of our community.”

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Lincoln Station development is an example of a lower income housing project in Summit County on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dakota Pacific in a prepared statement lauded the legislation, calling it a solution to the state’s unaffordability issues.

Utah’s housing affordability crisis is a statewide issue, and we applaud legislative efforts that help make housing more accessible to a broad spectrum of renters and buyers,” the Dakota Pacific statement said. It went on to argue most Summit County workers “have no choice but to commute from outside the county, exacerbating traffic congestion in Snyderville Basin, because housing opportunities in Summit County are out of reach or simply nonexistent.”

The company said its proposed development will “add much-needed rental and owner-occupied housing units, including a significant number of lower-income units, to help more of Utah’s workers improve their quality of life by bringing them closer to where they work.”

“Growth will not stop,” Dakota Pacific continued, “and the crisis will only compound unless all municipalities step up and play a part.”

Dakota Pacific’s statement did not address Summit County’s allegations that legislation was done as a “favor” for the company.

What does the bill do?

SB84 was drafted to add provisions to a bill passed last year, HB462 to require cities to zone for moderate-income housing while encouraging more dense housing to be permitted near public transit hubs. Lawmakers also tweaked that bill “very late” in the 2022 session “that was tailored for the special purpose of addressing” the Dakota Pacific project, Summit County officials said.

This year, Summit County officials have accused Snider of “quickly” slipping the language targeting Summit County, originally included in a separate bill made public on Feb. 13, HB446, into SB84 on Feb. 15. The Senate then concurred with the substitute language the next day.

That language is “clearly targeted at benefitting” Dakota Pacific, Summit County officials said, because it would “vest in a landowner of certain real estate in a third-class county within one-third of a mile of a transit hub certain automatically vested rights including between 39 and 50 dwelling units per acre on average over the subject parcels, with at least 10% of the dwelling units deed restricted as affordable housing units.”

That’s “nearly identical” to what Dakota Pacific is seeking, plus Summit County is the only third-class county with a transit hub, which sits adjacent to the Dakota Pacific project area, Summit County officials said.

Snider did not specifically mention the bill’s implications on Summit County when describing its substitute language on the House floor. Instead, he said it includes a “few additional changes as requested by Salt Lake County” and some “cure provisions relative to when a city is noncompliant.”

Snider also said SB84 is meant to continue what’s been a yearslong effort to “continue to upgrade, adopt and improve these critical housing and transit reinvestment zones.”

“The Legislature, in an attempt to address some affordable housing concerns, has incentivized and helped to fund and allow through statute these areas where transit and density can come together in a symbiotic way so people have a place to not only build an affordable home but also the transit to get them from point A to point B,” Snider said on the House floor.

Silver Creek Village is one example of a mixed income housing project in Summit County on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Was this a ‘favor?’

Snider, when asked for comment about Summit County’s accusations, issued a prepared statement that the legislation was “a culmination of an incredibly frustrating three-year process in which we hoped all parties would come to the table and negotiate a solution.”

“Before HB446 was introduced, conversations broke down and it became clear that legislation was the best way forward,” Snider said. “We expect individuals, organizations, and political subdivisions to follow the law, and unfortunately, Summit County is in violation of state law. While none of us wanted to get to this point, HB446 is the only remedy.”

Snider’s comment did not address Summit County’s accusations of avoiding transparency by substituting HB446 into SB84. He also did not address accusations that he was doing Dakota Pacific a “favor.”

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“Unfortunately, we were not surprised by the introduction of HB446 and its substitution into SB84,” Armstrong said, “since we were warned by several sources prior to the start of the 2023 general session that certain members of the Legislature were keeping a close eye on the DPRE (Dakota Pacific) application process and were prepared to take the matter out of the county council’s hands if it did not reach a resolution favorable to DPRE prior to the end of the session.”

Armstrong added it’s “disturbing that the Utah Legislature would pass legislation to enrich a specific developer at the expense of the community and in violation” of the existing development agreement on the property.

“We believe in ethical and transparent government. That’s how we operate, and when government operates outside of those bounds, we’re extremely concerned about it,” Armstrong said in an interview with the Deseret News.

“Every single county in the state of Utah, every single city in the state of Utah, and every single resident that values their local legislators having the ability to control what happens within their communities should be deeply concerned about this,” Armstrong continued. “Taking land use away from a local authority and saying, ‘We know better and you have to live with this,’ is dangerous, reckless and dishonest and they shouldn’t be doing it.”

Armstrong went on to say “this is a deal for a specific developer, make no mistake about it.”

“This is a favor,” he said. “This is legislation that was intended as a favor, not to fix a problem. This notion that they’re fixing some problem with a housing need is completely pretext for doing something as a favor.”

Liberty Peak, a lower income housing development in Summit County, is pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Is Summit County doing its part?

Gary Peacock, a Summit County resident and activist who has followed the Dakota Pacific project for years, told the Deseret News he recently talked with Snider about the bill, and said Snider told him, “Summit County thinks they’re better than the rest of the people of Utah.”

To any claim that Summit County — an area surrounding Park City, which is known to be one of Utah’s most expensive cities — isn’t doing its part when it comes to affordable housing, Armstrong begs to differ. He said Summit County has had almost 1,800 affordable housing units approved in just the past several years, and 11% of Summit County’s primary residential housing is deed restricted affordable housing.

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“That’s ridiculously significant,” he said, arguing if state officials really want to address affordable housing issues, they should focus on allowing cities to regulate short-term rentals — which uniquely impact Summit County’s housing stock.

Even though Summit County is known for its high housing prices, Peacock said “the vast majority of people that live here full time” are not “affluent people,” they’re regular people who work hard to live there because they love the great outdoors and the proximity to hiking, biking and skiing, and they want to protect it from traffic and other impacts that would come from upping residential density in Kimball Junction.

“Dakota Pacific has used their influence and power in the Legislature to get a piece of legislation that forces this project down the throats of Summit County residents because they could not convince the citizens that this project had any merit as far as a community benefit,” Peacock said.

What happens now?

It’s possible SB84 could be heading for a court challenge if Cox signs it and it becomes law.

Eric Moxham, one of the founding members for Friends of Responsible Development, said his group is encouraging county officials to “stand up for the citizens, and whether that means litigating with Dakota Pacific or the state, so be it.”

Asked whether county officials are considering litigation, Armstrong said “we’re going to look at every option we have.”

In the meantime, “We’re going to continue our process as if this legislation hadn’t hit,” Armstrong said, “and then we’ll figure out at the end of that what we’re stuck with.”

Moxham said this fight is about more than Summit County. It’s about local control across Utah.

“If this is how our Legislature is going to operate ... we are truly on a slippery slope to hell,” Moxham said. “Whether it be Summit County or any other counties across the state, they’re not going to have any ability to determine what’s best for their individual counties.”

Housing units at Newpark are located above the stores in Summit County on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News