Democratizing Utah's development

October 14, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

SALT LAKE CITY -- Can a right-leaning, property-rights-conscious Western state come to grips with limited land for development? Can it find ways to get people out of their cars more often, to preserve its dwindling open space?

Utah is about to try. Not by choice. It's because the state's principal growth corridor, the Salt Lake City-Wasatch Mountains Front Region, is coming under such fierce growth pressure.

An ominous "baseline scenario" -- what appears to lie ahead to 2020 and 2050 if population growth continues and nothing's done to alleviate traffic growth, deteriorated air quality, lost open space -- has just been issued by the Utah Quality Growth Partnership.

A combination of heavy in-migration and high birth rates in a heavily Mormon state will push population, the report says, from 1.6 million today to 2.7 million in 2020 and a staggering 5 million in 2050.

Urbanized expansion

If the region's 10 counties and 76 cities stick with their current low-density growth plans, its urbanized area will balloon by the mid-21st century by more than four times -- from 320 square miles to 1,350 square miles.

More than half the irrigated farmland, in a region that's an oasis in a desert-like state, will be lost.

Fueled by the spread out development, a massive $9.7 billion would be spent on new roads and other transportation improvements by 2020 -- $10,121 per household. But even so, the average number of miles each person drives will nearly zoom up from 40 to 75 miles a day. Minutes in stalled traffic will double. Air pollution will worsen appreciably.

"It's alarming. We're paving over our garden," state agriculture department spokesman Larry Lewis told the Salt Lake Tribune.

"There's not enough land or money to build enough roads" to accommodate the cars that will flood the region's roads, said the Utah transportation department's John Leonard.

In most states, politicos dismiss disturbing projections. But not in this instance. The popular Republican governor, Mike Leavitt, calls the projections "sobering." Indeed, Mr. Leavitt is honorary co-chair of the Quality Growth Partnership. He asked his Office of Planning and Budget to take the lead in assembling data for the baseline report, and got the legislature to fund $350,000 in new computer capacity to do the job.

The partnership, led by Geneva Steel president Robert Grow, encompasses a sterling cross section of Utah's business, religious and political establishment. Even Realtors and homebuilders seem to have bought in on the process.

This breadth of support is stunning in a state said to have an "obsession" with private property rights, and which voted down even a mild growth management law after it fell under right-wing political attack in the 1970s.

But a new politics seems to be at work. Today's grim baseline projections needn't come true. The partnership will develop computer-generated alternative scenarios that promise less congestion, better air, more open space, based on such options as denser development at transit stops or building satellite cities.

Then the citizenry will be told: These are the trade-offs, the pluses and minuses of each scenario. So which do you favor? Massive television and newspaper coverage is planned, says Mr. Grow.

Surveys (following the precedent of Portland, Oregon, in its 2040 growth plan) will be sent to hundreds of thousands of households. School children will get briefings on the choices -- and then be asked to talk to their parents about them.

There'll also be a massive effort to make sure local officials and state legislators know the issues and choices.

One could argue Utah has no alternative. The Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake function as de facto urban growth boundaries around the exploding urban core. The livable oasis is only so large.

But more seems to be at work here -- the first stirrings of a 21st century politics of democratized development in which citizens are asked to choose for themselves instead of just accepting, after the fact, what developers of cul-de-sac homes or strip commercial blocks throw their way.

Instead of starting with government-imposed top-down controls, the Quality Growth Partnership is trying to leap to a new strategy -- to inform citizens so they're the ones demanding traffic restraint, protection for open space, pedestrian-oriented development.

Public pressures

The public appetite to have a say on growth whetted, one can even envision citizens pressuring to start recycling old industrial areas or cheap commercial strips into more compact, efficient use -- both business and residential. Or demanding computer simulations that let them express their wishes and make suggestions on development in their neighborhoods before it happens.

A politics of land use choice may produce some bitter arguments. But the bright hope here is that the right wing's old nemesis -- the bureaucrat -- will be out of the line of fire. Instead, the advocates for sounder, smart development could be one's fellow citizens.

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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