What’s the plan? Charting a future for Salt Lake County’s west bench proves complex as growth pressures build

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Development continues to creep up against the Oquirrh foothills along the southwest bench in Salt Lake County near Herriman on Friday, May 17, 2019. A flurry of land use planning is underway covering SLCounty's west side, as growth pressure only gets more intense and we head toward a future of wall-to-wall city.

The pressures on Salt Lake County’s west side aren’t letting up.

Already at the epicenter of a statewide population surge since 2000, the area west of Bangerter Highway spanning all the way to the Oquirrh Mountain foothills holds the county’s last major reserves of undeveloped land.

What is ultimately constructed on those parcels — how tall the buildings are, how many dwellings spread over each acre, what roads will need to be built or improved — is the focus of intense scrutiny by residents and elected leaders across the region.

Final decisions also depend on the economy, politics and even the price of copper. But one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it should be well thought out.

There’s now a rush of government action to map how those nearly 32,182 acres might someday be filled, portending a future when the Salt Lake Valley is built out from the Oquirrhs to the Wasatch Mountains.

It could take a year or more for the county and area cities to gather data, seek public input and do the analysis needed to put their own plans together.

But the demands of growth are not subsiding and there are signs that current building trends may even intensify.

It now appears that Olympia Hills, a controversial high-density development proposed in southwest Salt Lake County, will be resurrected well before those studies are finished.

County Mayor Jenny Wilson confirmed that formal talks could begin as early as Tuesday on reviving plans for the housing and commercial project on 938 acres of unincorporated land just west of Herriman.

The discussions, she said, are being spurred on by a legal deadline to revisit the county’s decision after then-County Mayor Ben McAdams vetoed the project last year in the face of stiff public opposition.

While Wilson said she has sympathy for those who would rather craft detailed land-use plans before new projects move forward, “that is not reality,” she said. The mayor also holds a view some homeowners reject — that new housing construction needs to be more tightly packed than the developments of decades past.

“We have always seen this rapid growth, and it’s not going to slow down,” Wilson said. “With that, and with our very limited amount of remaining developable land, we have to build density and we have to have planned communities.”

The mayor said county leaders are likely to authorize new negotiations between their planners and Olympia Hills developers Doug Young and Cory Shupe on reapplying for approval to build. Acting now, she said, will help ensure the county’s influence over how Olympia Hills ultimately would be designed and executed.

But the option of moving forward on such a big project without having a clearer picture of how it might fit into a future system of roads, waterlines, open spaces and other housing developments is frustrating for some.

Kicked into gear

Developers of Olympia Hills initially proposed about nine dwellings per acre as part of an ambitious mixed-use development that aimed to bring in tens of thousands of new homeowners and apartment dwellers.

Thousands of residents from Herriman and surrounding cities rallied against it last summer, eventually prompting McAdams’ veto. Those living nearby and city leaders feared the project would overburden water supplies, sewers and schools and worsen traffic on already congested east-west roads serving the area.

Young and Shupe have regrouped and scaled back designs for Olympia Hills to just under seven units per acre, for about 6,500 homes with a variety of housing types to be built in phases around high-tech job centers.

More broadly, the Olympia Hills controversy has altered political dynamics in the southwest corner of the county.

Mayors of cities in the area have formed a coalition to push for their residents’ interests — particularly improved roads and highways and better mass transit service — at both the county level and on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

And the debate also has launched multiple studies. So many planning efforts, in fact, that some worry affected residents won’t be able to keep them straight.

“We really should coordinate in one overall effort,” said Wilf Sommerkorn, director of regional planning and transportation for Salt Lake County.

Lay of the land

Herriman hired a consultant late last year to study how dense the housing should be on the Olympia Hills site, land the city has designated for possible annexation someday. That analysis concluded that the city should stick to its current plan — about 3.2 dwellings per acre, less than half of what developers have sought — and that anything higher would bring unanticipated impacts on those already living in the area.

Around the time Olympia Hills was sidetracked, county officials began their own study of existing conditions in the area through the Office of Regional Planning. That wider look at the west bench has now entered an eight-month public-input phase for what’s being called the Oquirrh View study. Planners expect to submit their recommended strategies to the Salt Lake County Council by year’s end.

If approved in early 2020, the resulting master plan will be binding only on unincorporated county land, not the adjacent cities.

According to some, the county has not done the best job of coordinating its work with others. Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs said when details of the Oquirrh View study were first presented to a gathering of southwest mayors, “there was a bunch of blank stares on their faces.

“None of us really knew that this was even going on,” Staggs said. “And that, I think, speaks volumes.”

At the same time, Staggs and his counterparts in Herriman, Bluffdale, West Jordan, South Jordan and Copperton are poised to launch a separate $250,000 land study, prompted in part by the Olympia Hills controversy — with Salt Lake County chipping in $100,000 of that for goodwill.

The goal is to develop a joint vision among the six municipalities for development, density and improving transportation.

Called the Southwest Mayors Caucus visioning study, it could take between 18 months and two years to finish and will cover acreage within the cities’ boundaries as well as parcels they might someday absorb through annexation.

Unlike a master plan, officials say this will be more of a consensus guide for future land use and not legally binding.

“We’re trying to think regionally and act locally,” said South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey. Even if the plans aren’t ready in time for the Olympia Hills review, she added, several additional developments involving hundreds of acres are already in the works nearby.

“It isn’t just Olympia Hills impacting the area,” Ramsey said. “It’s the collective map of all of these projects.”

Those separate planning efforts could lead to conflicting findings. With that in mind, a top planner with Wasatch Front Regional Council said the situation calls for a more fluid approach to public meetings, focusing on scenarios and problem solving.

“Let’s roll up our sleeves and instead of saying, ‘I don’t like this and I do like that,’ let’s say, ‘Well, how should we solve these challenges?’” the agency’s deputy director, Ted Knowlton, suggested. “And if that’s coordinated, I think that can reduce meeting fatigue.”

‘Aha’ moment

The county’s study of existing conditions along the west bench is eye-opening.

As Utahns continue to have babies at a rate faster than the national average and out-of-state residents pour in, almost 57% of Salt Lake County’s resulting population growth has landed on its west side, at a clip of about 8,000 new residents annually since 2000.

The west side has become more ethnically diverse, and families across the area tend to be larger than elsewhere in the county, posing challenges to school capacity.

Transportation in the Oquirrh View study area is a central and vexing issue, complicated by a lack of employers. There are an estimated 33 jobs per working adult available in those southwest communities, compared with 84 countywide. As a result, more than 80% of residents commute out of the area for employment each day, with nearly half of them headed north.

“That was kind of the big ‘aha’ moment,” said Jake Young, a planning manager for Salt Lake County, adding that the county had boosted economic development as a priority.

Although more than half of all automobile trips by area residents are 3 miles or less, a lack of connectivity between surface streets means drivers are often forced onto major highways even for those short distances, the county has found.

In addition to road and highway improvements, the region is in desperate need of more mass transit, both bus lines and TRAX and FrontRunner service, according to those initial findings.

On the housing front, home prices in that corner of the valley haven’t risen as fast or as much as they have in the rest of the county, but rent increases have shot up faster.

Added to that, the mix of housing in the southwest valley has shifted dramatically away from single-family homes. Apartments, condominiums and town homes now comprise more than half of all dwellings in the region, up from less than a quarter in 2000.

Talks with Jordan Valley Conservancy District have revealed that water supplies are available and adequate for future residents, but it is “going to be a lot more expensive,” said Young.

“The big conclusion,” he said, “is that water conservation is more important than ever.”

The heavyweight

But there’s an even bigger takeaway from the county’s work: Much of this planning and discussion on housing density could ring hollow without input from one major player.

Kennecott Utah Copper, which has mined the Oquirrhs since 1898, owns nearly 70% of the undeveloped land on the west bench. That puts its parent company Rio Tinto in all but direct control of how much a large share of the west side’s development will unfold.

Kennecott was the driving force behind Daybreak, the 4,200-acre, high-density master planned community in South Jordan. The company was involved in similar land planning for its other holdings in the Oquirrh foothills, but was forced to pull the plug when the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s.

Mayor Wilson said one of her goals is ensuring Kennecott remains “at the table” in the latest planning efforts, embracing the same Daybreak-like land-use planning principles, only with more jobs.

A Rio Tinto Kennecott spokesman confirmed the company considers planning by Salt Lake County and the southwest cities “critical” — especially with population growth and rising demand for housing and economic development in the south valley.

Kennecott’s timeline for developing its land is closely tied to its ongoing copper and other mining operations. Spokesman Kyle Bennett said the company continues to study ways to extend operations at the Bingham Canyon mine for several decades.

“The life of the mine is dependent on a number of factors that include commodity prices, technology, costs and ore availability,” Bennett said.

According to the county’s Oquirrh View study, Kennecott also envisions keeping major portions of the western foothills pristine and accessible to the public for recreation. Bennett said the company considered open space vital to the community’s future.

In the near term, Rio Tinto is pursuing developments on relatively small parcels of its lands near Magna, in the south valley and in Tooele County.

Longer term, Rio Tinto is also committed to so-called “smart growth” principles, Bennett added, as a way to ensure that financial investments in roads, mass transit and utilities for the area “enable a sustainable future for our community.”

“A thoughtful approach to development,” he said, “typically leads to the best outcomes.”

But as critical as thoughtful planning might be, growth in Salt Lake County isn’t being put on pause.

“You know, you’re trying to plan and you’re trying to get ahead of growth. And sometimes you don’t,” said Sommerkorn, the county’s head planner. “Growth shows up and you’re not really done with your plan.”