Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has declared in public meetings that the proposed high-density Olympia Hills development will be approved, and that is sparking worries for some residents in the county’s southwestern communities.
Plans for the 931-acre residential and commercial project west of Herriman — which were vetoed last summer by then-County Mayor Ben McAdams — reportedly are still weeks, if not months, away from a new formal review by the County Council and a series of public hearings.
But at a routine meeting of the county’s Parks & Recreation Advisory Board on July 11, Wilson was asked about a lack of recreation centers in southwest cities such as Herriman and Riverton, where, a Jordan School District official said, residents are “not real big fans of the county right now.”
“The large growth that’s been pushed our way is something we’re very concerned with,” Jordan School District board member Darrell Robinson told Wilson, according to a recording. “How do you address the rapid growth on the southwest part of the valley and bring in the resources that we want?”
After apologizing for being “quite direct,” Wilson replied that officials in Riverton and Herriman had not adequately planned for the growth they are seeing. That, she said, had put county officials “in the hot seat” in regard to the Olympia Hills project, proposed on unincorporated county land on their borders.
“And so I’m going to be ready to fight, because the criticism has not been fair,” Wilson told attendees of the county’s review. “You’re going to see Olympia Hills approved. They lowered the density quite a bit.”
Word of Wilson’s remarks spread quickly on social media, prompting concerned calls to other elected leaders and questions about past campaign contributions from the Olympia Hills developer to Wilson’s recent unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.
Several residents who fought a denser version of the housing and commercial real estate project last summer said the mayor’s characterization of Olympia Hills as a foregone conclusion was, as one put it, “kind of a red flag.”
“The impression that I think a lot of us are getting is that this is getting the fast forward,” said Lisa Brown, a member of the grassroots group Utah for Responsible Growth, which opposed an earlier version of the project, concerned that it would aggravate conditions in an area already strained by population growth.
Others have raised those concerns in connection with nearly $27,000 in campaign donations that Federal Election Commission records indicate Olympia Hills developer Doug Young, family members and employees of Doug Young Land & Livestock made to Wilson’s unsuccessful 2017-2018 Senate race against Republican Mitt Romney.
“All of these things are a little bit alarming,” Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs said of the donations and Wilson’s recent statements. He and others are urging the county to delay approval of Olympia Hills pending the completion of several studies of land use in the region.
“The best course of action is to wait,” Staggs said.
In a written statement issued last week, the mayor reiterated her view that Olympia Hills developers Young and Cory Shupe already have development rights on the open farm being eyed for the project — land which is zoned for a range of agricultural uses that includes the option of subdividing it into one-acre lots for single-family homes.
“As a result, Olympia Hills — in some form — will be approved,” said the statement from Wilson, who replaced McAdams earlier this year after he was elected to Congress. “The question remains as to what the project will ultimately look like.
“That’s why the planning and review process that is currently underway at Salt Lake County is so critical,” she said in the statement.
Wilson has cast herself as a longtime supporter of “the idea of smart planning and growth management to address population growth and prevent sprawl.” She also said the county “remains committed to soliciting extensive public input" before the County Council votes.
In an interview, Wilson turned aside calls from some Herriman residents that she disqualify herself from future talks on Olympia Hills in light of perceived conflicts of interest over Young’s campaign contributions. She noted that, as county mayor, she will not have a vote in approving or rejecting the project when it comes before the council.
“The reality is, if you’ve run for office several times as I have, money is a part of it,” said Wilson, who added that she was proud of having received contributions in her Senate bid from a large numbers of donors making relatively small contributions.
“I am not influenced in my decision-making by any donor and provide equal access for all,” she said. “And my long time in public life proves that commitment to all.”
'Planned community, not sprawl’
The Olympia Hills developers are seeking to have those 931 acres on Herriman’s western edge rezoned to allow for a planned community, akin to the master-planned Daybreak in South Jordan, only with more homes per acre.
In her July 11 comments, Wilson said the county was doing “the responsible thing” by guiding the developer in that direction. “It will be a planned community, not sprawl," she said.
Young and Shupe say if their zoning application is approved, Olympia Hills will be built in phases around high-tech employers moving to the area, applying a “live-work-play” model aimed at minimizing additional commuter traffic headed elsewhere.
In its latest incarnation, the Olympia Hills proposal calls for about 6.8 dwellings per acre and would add at least 6,300 households to that southwest corner of the valley. Many residents and elected officials in the area say they are already coping with traffic congestion on east-west arterials and other impacts of rapid growth in recent years and that Olympia Hills threatens to make those worse.
County officials have cited an ongoing regional housing shortage among their reasons to give the project a second look.
Ryan Perry, a senior adviser to Wilson, said late last week that county officials were now soliciting bids from outside companies to review the Olympia Hills plans along with county staff and “to help recommend the appropriate measures to include within the approval or denial of the application.”
The swift reaction to Wilson’s comments, meanwhile, offers a glimpse of heightened tensions and public scrutiny over the county’s handling of Olympia Hills’ second bid for zoning approval.
Staggs, the Riverton mayor, said Wilson’s remarks had mischaracterized his city’s own planning efforts, which he described as “conscientious, proactive and thoughtful."
“To assert otherwise,” he said Friday, “just illustrates how really out of touch some of these county elected officials are and that they’ve never really even been out to the southwest area.”
Andy Hayford, another member of Utah for Responsible Growth, recently called in to a telephonic public-input segment of one the County Council’s meetings and read Wilson’s transcribed remarks from the July 11 meeting to council members.
Hayford described the mayor’s comments as “concerning for many reasons,” particularly because mayors of Herriman, Bluffdale, Riverton, West Jordan, South Jordan and Copperton were just starting a new land use study of their communities, partly funded with county dollars.
“We would hate to move forward, do anything or have approval of the Olympia Hills project prior to that study being done,” Hayford said.
His call prompted Councilman Steve DeBry, whose District 5 covers a large swath of the southwest Salt Lake Valley, to respond that “it would be premature to say it [Olympia Hills] is, in fact, going to go through."
“We’re going to look at this with a fine-tooth comb,” DeBry said. “We’re going to vet it as a council and make sure that if anything does occur, that it’s going to be the right thing to do at the right time."
Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove told Hayford the latest project application had yet to come before the council. “It’s going to be a matter of weeks if not months before it does,” Snelgrove told him, “so stay turned.”
Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, whose District 3 spans Murray, Taylorsville, West Valley City, West Jordan and parts of South Salt Lake and Millcreek, said in an interview she had reached out to southwest residents to reassure them their input was welcome, even before she was made aware of the mayor’s remarks.
“Some people have assumed the council has already made up its mind,” Winder Newton wrote in a July 11 social media post aimed at Herriman residents. “I can only speak for myself, but I assure you that I have not made up my mind yet, and I believe my colleagues are also open-minded about this project.”
Winder Newton told The Salt Lake Tribune she understood some of the frustrations of residents, particularly over stalled traffic at rush hour, and that she sought to engage them as much as possible in the county’s review of Olympia Hills.