Goshen » It's all greasewood and jackrabbits out here on Utah County's "back 40," a lonely and lovely retreat for the old-fangled cowboy.
That's today. Folks around here know it can't last, and now there's color-coded evidence: a map that heralds the coming wave of suburban buckaroos in split-level ranches.
Utah Lake's great beyond is about to land on a transportation plan that rolls out freeways and bridges for an expected desert land rush by 500,000 or more people over the next half-century.
"I guess I'll have to head to Wyoming or Montana next," ranch manager Rich Fowler said last week while mending a barbed-wire fence next to a stock pond. He saw urban sprawl munch farms and ranches in California and Nevada before the cowboy want ads brought him here. He knows his cows stand in a freeway's path.
Where most people see a placid reflection of Happy Valley on the state's shallow freshwater sea, municipal planners see a chance to cut and paste the civilized east shore onto the brushy west. If they're right, the next generation in Utah's second-largest county will see as many neighbors in the dry hills out west as currently gather around Provo-Orem at the base of the Wasatch Mountains.
"This is really the only area in urban Utah that is undeveloped to [this] degree," said Darrell Cook, chairman of metropolitan Utah County's road-planning organization, Mountainland Association of Governments [MAG]. "We have, on a large scale, an opportunity to do it right.
"That's a planner's dream."
Vision of growth » Doing it right, in MAG's nearly completed "West Lake Vision" plan, means building two bridges across the 25-mile-long lake and wrapping a freeway from Saratoga Springs to Eagle Mountain and south to Goshen, then east to Interstate 15. A beltway farther west would traverse the Cedar Valley, and a grid of collector highways would carve the Goshen and Cedar valleys.
The plan that MAG adopts this fall will inform its next official long-term roads funding list, set for review in 2011.
It's a vision that makes sprawl fighters sigh. Planting essentially a second Happy Valley west of the lake and serving it with freeways just ensures a future of more smog and particulate pollution from people who have to drive long distances for everything, Sierra Club regional representative Marc Heileson said.
While Salt Lake County and now even eastern Utah County have embraced light rail, commuter rail and clustered denser developments around mass transit, he said, spreading asphalt beyond the lake would "undo everything good that's happening."
"It is a new definition for bad planning," Heileson said. "It's like all the mistakes that Los Angeles and Phoenix made" rolled into this plan.
The Sierra Club also balks at the bridges, which Heileson said would stir up pollutants from the muck and then add a steady stream of motor oil from the cars passing over.
Heileson said he doesn't believe things will work out as MAG envisions. Any increase in air pollution would cut off federal transportation funding that the county desperately needs, he said.
Cook disagrees. Air pollution would be worse if more people stacked up against the Wasatch's granite wall, he said. And besides the freeways, he expects the Utah Transit Authority will extend its railways into the virgin territory. He hopes for job centers and colleges to keep the new residents near home.
The plan doesn't specify where newcomers will get their water. MAG doesn't predict exactly when all of this will happen, though Cook said 30 to 40 years is a fair estimate.
It's not going to be cheap.
"Billions, plural," Cook offers. It could cost the state $6 billion for freeway construction alone, he said, not to mention engineering miles-long bridges over the deep muck under the lake.
Compare that to the $1.7 billion that the Utah Department of Transportation currently is spending to rebuild and widen I-15 past Provo.
"I really think [a West Lake highway system] will be the most expensive expenditure the state will make over the next little while," said Kent Millington, the Utah Transportation Commission member who represents Utah County.
MAG's plan is important because it shows where the county, city and state need to preserve highway rights of way against the coming development, Millington said. And he believes it is coming no matter what.
"If you look at what's happened just this decade in Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs," he said, "that area has grown from a little more than a few houses to 40,000 or 50,000 people out there."
The growth of those bedroom communities off the lake's northwest shore has paced Utah's nation-leading population surge lately. Planners expect a similar swell to round the lake's south end through pastoral Goshen when Payson and Santaquin build out.
The strands of big beige stucco homes now flowing into Eagle Mountain hay fields in the north eventually could fill in the back side of the Lake Mountains.
There will be affordable lots for countless happy families, said Eagle Mountain Mayor Heather Jackson, one of the city's earliest pioneers when she and her husband bought a home 11 years ago.
Eagle Mountain is planning for MAG's vision. Even before the "West Lake" plan, the city was zoning corridors for freeways. MAG's map now lines up two future freeways with those protected rights of way. There's also an east-west swath for what MAG calls a "Pony Express Parkway" from Saratoga Springs to Eagle Mountain, harking to the cities' place on the short-lived Old West mail route.
She's eager to make room for neighbors, especially if it means building the critical mass for freeways and bridges to shorten the drive to Orem. What took 30 minutes a decade ago now takes an hour, she said.
"It greatly affects the quality of life right now," Jackson said.
All these lines on the map have a different meaning to cowboy Fowler. They signal the death of another cow town. Goshen remains a weedy checkerboard of gravel roads and horse trailers, where the locals safely erect a home-painted "Kids at Play" sign on the shoulder without attracting highway code enforcers.
"I think it sucks," he said, grinning to show tobacco-stained teeth and shrugging at the inevitable.
"Strip malls. Highways. They'll do it all here. Everybody who buys these condos thinks their food comes from a grocery store."
Transportation commissioner Millington sympathizes. He watched Orem's growth squeeze out prized orchards. But farmers line up to sell when the price is right, he said, and they always find a new valley.
"I still buy plenty of apples," he said. "I used to buy them from Orem. Now I get them from somewhere else."
» 500,000 people west of Utah Lake
» Two freeway loops
» Two lake spans
» Urban masses in the Cedar and Goshen valleys