Olympia Hills gets initial approval from Salt Lake County

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Allred, a realtor from Herriman waits his turn to go before the the Salt Lake County Council before the first of two votes on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, on a set of zoning changes for Olympia Hills, the controversial new housing and commercial development proposed on unincorporated county land on Herriman's western border. The County Council approved the zoning changes 6-to-3, as residents, many of them wearing shirts with the word "NO" on the front and #OHNO on the back from Herriman, Bluffdale and Riverton showed up to oppose the project.

Salt Lake County gave its initial support Tuesday to Olympia Hills, in spite of opposition to the high-density housing project from residents in nearby Herriman, Bluffdale and Riverton.

After more than a year of study, members of the Salt Lake County Council voted 6-to-3 to approve a set of zoning changes for the 933-acre development proposed on unincorporated land west of Herriman, giving initial clearance for developers to build the project as a master-planned community.

Tuesday’s vote is the first of two required for the zoning changes. The second vote is scheduled for March 3. And if council members don’t change their positions, Olympia Hills will have government approval for the first stages of a buildout that developers say is expected to take at least 25 years.

“A master-planned development is by far the best way to do this,” said Councilman Michael Jensen, whose district includes the Olympia Hills site. “The developers have to comply with what’s in our agreement. If they don’t pay for infrastructure to go in, they don’t get permits.”

Added Councilman Jim Bradley: “I’m confident we have all the pieces in place.”

Bradley said the county’s plan and proposed contract with developers also included an “unprecedented” cost-sharing steps for Olympia Hills that would guarantee that impacts on roads, water supplies and other concerns are addressed.

Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter

“This has been one of the most aggressive planning efforts I’ve seen in this county,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kell Bjorn of Herriman waits his turn to speak in opposition to the proposed Olympia Hills development prior to Salt Lake County Council taking the first of two votes on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, on a set of zoning changes for the controversial new housing and commercial development proposed on unincorporated county land on Herriman's western border. The County Council approved the zoning changes 6-to-3, as residents from Herriman, Bluffdale and Riverton who oppose the project turned out for the hearing to voice their concerns.

Council members Steve DeBry, Aimee Winder Newton and Richard Snelgrove voted against the project, heeding nearby homeowners and city leaders who had repeatedly made clear their opposition to the huge development.

Scores of opponents — many wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the hashtag #OHno — packed into the County Council chambers Tuesday to express worries over the way the development could lead to gridlock. Nearly a dozen residents spoke during Tuesday’s hearing, all of them opposed to Olympia Hills.

“It’s not going to be sustainable,” said Herriman resident Teddy Hodges. “It’s not what the county needs out there. It’s not going to benefit us, our way of life or the traffic conditions we already have out there.”

DeBry, who voted against the project, said the public outcry on Olympia Hills via email, text and phone calls was unequaled in his years on the County Council, with “thousands of people stating their concerns.”

“Things are going to change,” he said of growth in the county. “But you don’t throw gasoline on a fire. ... The way this is going to impact the residents of the county is not right.”

Winder Newton said Olympia Hills “is not in the right location.” She called it “unethical to have so much density so far out,” warning that the project threatened to upend county spending priorities on roads and other needs elsewhere in the county.

Frustrated opponents, meanwhile, said the county’s first stage of approval won’t be the end of this. They may launch a citizens referendum in hopes of overturning the county’s decision.

“And it will be successful, so please save everyone the time,” Herriman resident Scott Watson warned the council prior to its vote, claiming the public’s opposition was unmistakable. “Vote no. Please don’t force the people to do it for you.”

The initial approval signals backing for Utah developers Doug Young, John Gust and their partners to construct as many as 6,330 new single-family homes and apartments and 1.8 million square feet of office and retail spaces on what is now open farmland in the county’s southwest corner.

Their plans call for a staggered approach to developing the site and a mix of housing and commercial building types with densities roughly akin to those in Daybreak, the master-planned community in South Jordan that opened in 2004 and is still being built out.

In spite of public opposition for Olympia Hills voiced at several hearings, supporters on the council cited rising regional demand for new and more affordable housing and the fact the developers were already entitled to develop the open acreage under its prior zoning.

Tuesday’s council approval, supporting members said, also ensured the controversial development in the Oquirrh foothills would be guided by more sustainable so-called “smart growth principles” of land use, instead of proceeding on large-acre lots conducive to more urban sprawl.

“This council has tried hard to listen,” said Council Chairman Max Burdick. “This project has been thought through. There are some huge restrictions on this developer. Maybe the agreement even goes too far.”

Burdick and others also pointed to a half-dozen projects approved in the southwest part for the valley that had higher densities than Olympia Hills. But Tuesday’s approval was nonetheless a heavy blow to many residents who live near the proposed development site.

Southwest valley residents have noted that rampant growth has already put a heavy burden on east-west surface roads, and even beyond Olympia Hills, there are tens of thousands of additional homes to be built under existing permits.

Hodges and others said that major and vital upgrades to key highways likely to be affected by the project — Bangerter Highway and Mountain View Corridor — are not yet funded by state lawmakers. Nor are their concrete plans, they said, for buses or trains in the southwest valley.

Justin Swain, Herriman resident and organizer for Utah for Responsible Growth, said in a statement he was reaching “a boiling over point of frustration” with the council’s action.

“I don’t feel that our educated and data-supported objections have been acknowledged with the validity they deserve,” Swain said in a letter to the council. “I also don’t feel that our quality of life and very reasonable requests are being weighted nearly as high as what they should.“

The Riverton City Council formally called on council members to deny approval to the rezone, noting that Olympia Hills’ housing densities of roughly 6.9 homes per acre far exceeded the county’s previously approved standards of between three and five dwellings per acre.

“This project in its current form would be neither responsible nor accompanied by adequate infrastructure,” the Riverton council’s statement said.

Elected leaders in Herriman, West Jordan and Bluffdale had come to similar conclusions, they have said — particularly on a mismatch on acceptable housing densities in the project compared to those approved in surrounding cities.

Herriman City Councilman Steve Shields called Olympia Hills “the wrong proposal in the wrong place at the wrong time being decided by the wrong people.”

Other opponents continued to urge the county to delay a decision until a separate regional study of land uses across the southwest valley is completed. That study was launched by area cities in August.

Shields said without that information, “the residents of the community will bear the brunt of your lack of foresight.” He and others said County Council members would face consequences of their votes at the polls.

Councilwoman Ann Granato and other supporters on the council countered that master planning Olympia Hills was the best way to ensure the needs of nearby residents were protected.

“As much as we want to keep a way of life, change is coming," Granato said.

A similar but more dense version of Olympia Hills won County Council approval by a 8-to-1 vote in mid-2018, but was then vetoed by Wilson’s predecessor, then-County Mayor Ben McAdams, in the face of public opposition.

County officials have said a further delay of Olympia Hills was not possible, given the developers’ legal entitlement to have their second application processed in a timely manner. The land in question is currently zoned for agricultural uses, including housing on large lots.

In their second, more detailed review, county planners have imposed new and detailed requirements on Olympia Hills, including its neighborhood layouts, street networks, housing and commercial building types, ample shares of open space and other features.

The county is also requiring developers to pay a portion of the costs of impacts from their project outside the boundaries of Olympia Hills, including road upgrades required in surrounding communities to handle additional traffic to and from the project.

Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw said the county’s agreement with developers had been further toughened with benchmarks for commercial development to keep pace with the project’s construction of new homes.

“There will be multiple opportunities to shape this,” Bradshaw said.

Developers have said the new community — among the largest approved by the county in recent years — would be constructed in at least four major phases over 25 years. Maps indicate the project’s first two phases, involving some of the densest housing, would be located on eastern portions of the Olympia Hills footprint — right on Herriman’s border.

The county’s master agreement with developers — also approved Tuesday — calls for more detailed plans on each community within Olympia Hills to be submitted for county review and approval.