No decisions involving the Salt Lake County canyons are ever that simple, particularly when it comes to making rules on what can and what can’t be done with that beautiful land.
The Legislature, through SB187, sought to extend, for one more year, the life of the Mountainous Planning Commission. It was created by the Legislature in 2015 to develop recommendations and share them with the Salt Lake County Council.
Sounds innocuous, right?
Not to a small group of vocal opponents. They have long accused the county and this commission of “strong-arm tactics,” intimidation, threats of cutting off funding for police and fire, and infringing on property rights in the newly incorporated town of Brighton.
There was enough muddiness around the issue that SB187 was one of just three bills (out of 574 that the Legislature passed) that Gov. Gary Herbert, who had vowed not to sign another extension, let become law without his signature.
“What was originally intended to be a one-year project will now extend to a total of six years," Herbert wrote in a letter to legislative leaders. "I strongly encourage the Mountain Planning District to complete its work in as timely a manner as possible."
From Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson’s perspective, extending the Mountainous Planning Commission’s life span so it can deliver its recommendations later this year was a common-sense move.
“We have a significant state resource — not just a county resource. So [the planning district] was a different way to approach the canyons,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson told me. “Our canyons are a community asset. They’re key to our economic vibrancy and quality of life.”
Think about it this way: Nearly 2 million people trek up Big Cottonwood Canyon every year to ski, hike, backpack, camp and whatever else. So the idea was to get a diverse group together to decide what we want the future of the canyons to look like — not just people who live in them, but people who recreate, and the million or so residents in the Salt Lake Valley who rely on the canyon watershed.
“What we wanted are people who are impacted by the different challenges,” Wilson said.
There’s another key point: The creation of the Mountainous Planning Commission actually gives canyon residents more input, not less, because if the commission didn’t exist, those decisions would be entirely up to the council.
But as the planning process is nearing completion, the work they’ve done is somewhat in doubt, thanks to a vote by 105 canyon residents last November to incorporate the new town of Brighton at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
When the new town becomes official next January, land-use planning authority would have come with it, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Over the years, the County Council — and to a lesser extent Salt Lake City — have been a check on unconstrained development.
The council has pushed back, for example, against landowners who wanted to build enormous cabins or turn their property into makeshift lodges or build right up against streams that provide water to residents down in the valley.
And there’s a lot of land that will be under the new town’s purview. The town of just 260 full-time residents — and many more owners of second homes and cabins — spans nearly 16 square miles, meaning it is larger geographically than the town of Millcreek, which has 240 times as many residents.
There are some who would like to see the county butt out.
Greg Schiffman is one of those who rails against the Mountainous Planning Commission. He is vice chairman of the community council for the town of Granite, at the mouth of the canyon, and told legislators recently that he couldn’t believe a conservative state like Utah lets outsiders, people who don’t even live in the canyon, help make recommendations about how that land will be managed.
It’s Schiffman who accused the county of “strong-arm tactics” and claimed former Mayor Ben McAdams “wants to control land so badly in the town of Brighton that they threatened a 70-year-old woman, the community council chair, that if she doesn’t give up planning [authority] her residents will be [stuck] with millions of dollars a year” in fire and public safety costs.
It sounds like bullying, but in reality state law prohibits counties to pay for police and fire in an incorporated town and it has for years.
That put Brighton in a bit of a pinch, since the residents couldn’t afford police and fire without a huge tax increase on full-time residents and a much larger increase for those who own second homes and cabins in the new town — people who were not even able to vote for or against the town’s creation.
So SB187 came to a reasonable compromise: Extend the planning commission another year and change the law to allow the county to help pay the cost for police and fire — and that makes sense, because if you believe the canyons are community assets for everyone to enjoy, then we shouldn’t have a problem paying those costs.
There is another viewpoint, of course: That private property is sacrosanct and those who own the land should be able to make the rules and do what they want.
But Brighton can’t have it both ways. They can’t have self-determination without self-sufficiency and they can’t tell the rest of us to stay out of their business while they’re reaching into our wallets.
And while the Legislature came to a good conclusion this year, it is a short-term, one-year fix, which is a mistake, since long-term planning decisions don’t occur in a vacuum and will need to be revisited next year and every year after.
Wilson said the county is already looking at ways to extend the planning commission beyond next year and wants to work with the incoming Brighton officials. Hopefully they can reach some compromise, because it would be unfortunate if a handful of canyon landowners are allowed to determine the future of Big Cottonwood Canyon, one of our community’s most valuable treasures.