Robert Gehrke: Ambitious development near Moab provides a chance to avoid creating another Moab

Robert Gehrke.

It’s not exactly breaking news that Moab has some sticky problems to deal with.

The hippest base camp for recreation in Utah’s scenic redrock drew more than 3 million visitors last year, undoubtedly a booming summertime tourist economy. On busy days during the peak season, the population of the town literally quadruples.

It’s been a victim of its own success — not to mention some poor planning — leaving the town of just more than 5,200 grappling with a feast-or-famine economy, a lack of housing for low-wage seasonal workers, choking traffic jams, and inadequate sewage and public safety.

In February, the Moab City Council put in place a moratorium on new hotels, condos and housing intended for short-term rentals while city leaders try to sort out how to accommodate the rapid growth.

The pause, which was extended in July, drew a backlash from those who make a living off the tourist trade — local business owners, hotel developers and real estate interests — and Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus was recently summoned into meetings with the governor’s office and legislative leaders to explain what the heck she is doing.

The city didn’t have much choice, frankly. It has been completely overwhelmed and city leaders couldn’t very well figure out a long-term plan to avoid drowning until they did something to slow the torrents of water rushing in. The situation had reached a crisis level.

So why on earth would we want to compound the problem by opening up a huge swath just south of Moab — across the border in San Juan County — to as many as 14,000 people?

The last thing we need is nearly three Moabs right next to Moab, right?

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Five miles south of Moab, Spanish Valley is expected to see rapid growth as a $13 million water and sewer project nears completion on September 19, 2019.

That was my gut reaction when I read about a plan to green-light development in the Spanish Valley. There are just so many ways it could go wrong and we could end up with another clogged tourist magnet or, worse, sprawling luxury resorts, that would only exacerbate the problems.

I was uneasy, I was resistant — and I was wrong.

Digging into the proposed development in Spanish Valley, it’s striking how it could serve as a model for how to do this sort of thing the right way.

When planners conducted extensive public outreach to figure out what those in the area wanted from the new community, the theme became clear, said Mark Vlasic, president and owner of Landmark Design, the company that is putting together the Spanish Valley plan.

“We don’t want it to be Moab,” Vlasic said was the message they heard. “We don’t want all the problems of Moab. We don’t want a ton of hotels and motels.”

So Vlasic and his team set out to create something different — a methodically planned bedroom community that avoided some of the pitfalls that have tripped up Moab as it sprawled out more organically.

No, it won’t be 14,000 tourists and Airbnb profiteers stampeding into the valley. The plan looks four or five decades into the future, built out in phases based on demand and — most importantly — the availability of water.

Each phase includes a roll-out of utilities and roads and diverts traffic away from the main highway to avoid Moab’s congestion nightmares. Vlasic said the goal is to build a real community of full-time, year-round residents, not people buying second homes or looking for short-term rentals.

Draft ordinances include areas that would be set aside as open space, policies to encourage water conservation and a “dark sky” requirement to limit light pollution.

“It’s going to be done right,” said Bryan Torgerson, resource specialist in the Moab office of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which owns the property. “We’re not a developer that just comes in and then leaves the area. We’re going to be around for a long time.”

The project could be a major boost to San Juan County, one of the poorest in the state with few other options for economic development. The home construction — up to 1,000 in phase one alone — would help property taxes for the county and school district, and generate jobs.

If the population comes, businesses will follow. And because residents would live there year-round, the jobs would not come and go with the tourists.

And, because SITLA owns the property, proceeds from the development — perhaps as much as $500 million from the first phase alone, Torgerson said — would go to help Utah’s schools.

The secret is out on southeastern Utah. People are going to come. By listening to residents, having a long-term vision and planning deliberately and methodically, Spanish Valley could prove to be a model for the state while avoiding some of the missteps of its neighbor to the north.