Utah County residents hope explosive growth will come with more transit, town centers

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New homes for sale in Eagle Mountain, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.

The prospect of adding up to a million new residents by 2065 has Utah County exploring ways to grow rapidly while maintaining its quality of life.

In-depth polling shows county residents envision a future where people tend to live nearer to town centers and rely more on mass transit to get to jobs that are relatively close to their apartment or house on a smaller lot.

They see future construction on both sides of Utah Lake that would reduce commutes, allow new generations to live closer to their families and leave some farm lands intact.

But reaching those and other goals spelled out in a recent “Valley Visioning” process will take help from elected leaders and a big change in mindset, at a time when cities commonly face fights over higher-density housing.

Research by the regional planning agency Envision Utah shows Utah County residents know growth means more people packed in tighter spaces, so they want more options for getting around than just their cars, including expanded access to TRAX, Frontrunner and bus routes as well as more choices for walking and biking.

What they don’t want — at least according to input from more than 11,000 residents so far — is business as usual.

“We don’t have the land to keep sprawling out on the Wasatch Front,” Orem Mayor Richard Brunst said. “If we can re-envision how our communities will grow, it’s a great way to go.”

Officials intend to disseminate and refine a series of scenarios for Utah County between now and April, in hopes that some of the county’s 22 cities will adopt its strategies into their own zoning master plans.

“The challenge now will be getting the community — city councils, mayors and others — to take this data to heart and to implement some of it,” said Val Hale, Utah County resident and executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

“There needs to be a lot of educating,” said Hale, who served as a co-chairman for the visioning process.

In many ways, Utah County is emblematic of the Utah’s broader growing pains.

Its future growth, as with other more populated areas, is increasingly shaped by dwindling stocks of undeveloped land. Once considered plentiful on Utah County’s east side, those available acreages are shrinking, forcing developers to look elsewhere and particularly, westward.

The county’s recent growth, too, has been driven by a buzzing state economy producing new jobs at a record pace. And while that is attracting people looking to move there, a majority of Utah County’s added residents in the years to come will be the children and grandchildren of those living there today.

Utah’s population as a whole is expected to grow from a little more than 3 million now to 5.83 million people by 2065. Demographers project Utah County’s population will rise from nearly 622,000 residents to 1.6 million in that same time, with the potential to one day rival Salt Lake County in size.

“We’ve just become a very attractive place to live,” Hale said. “And part of the reason that we did this visioning process, is that we want to stay attractive. We don’t want to be overwhelmed and lose our quality of life. We need to stay ahead of this.”

That same thinking appears to prompt many residents to consider their future more regionally, according to Envision Utah CEO and President Ari Bruening.

“If you look just at your neighborhood or your community, you have a different conclusion than if you take the entire county into your perspective on the amount of growth that's happening,” Bruening said.

“We found that people in Utah County were really ready to own their growth and understood that it was time to do things a little bit differently to accommodate it,” he said.

Development in Utah County over the past two decades has generally tilted toward single-family homes built on larger lots and on separating neighborhoods from commercial areas in ways that reinforce the need to drive a car, Bruening said.

One result: county residents now spend an average of 732 hours a year in their vehicles, with average household driving costs estimated at $1,270 per month, according to Envision Utah’s research.

Residents favor future scenarios that instead call for access to a wider range of housing types, with more apartments, town homes and condominiums. They want more water-wise landscaping and smaller lawns. But more crucially, over half of survey respondents said they favored development around existing urban town centers, in ways that preserve the county’s single-family neighborhoods, open spaces and farmlands.

More than 40% wanted expanded and more convenient public transportation. And the Orem mayor said his city’s success with redeveloping the once-ailing University Place Mall into a mixed-use center served by TRAX lines has demonstrated the approach works.

“It has its own park, its own apartments, grocery store, office buildings, its own retail and mass transit that feeds into it” Brunst said. “People really love it.”

County residents are also interested in more electric vehicles and more efficient buildings in hopes of improving air quality, the Envision Utah survey found.

One in four respondents said they also hoped new growth in the county would push west of Utah Lake toward and around Eagle Mountain, as opposed to only 12% who favored growth southward in the county onto lands in and around Springville, Spanish Fork, Mapleton and Payson.

Half of respondents said they wanted to save southern Utah County’s agricultural lands, departing from past patterns that have seen thousands of acres of farm lands give way to development.

Brunst said those findings may reflect different perspectives among southern and western residents of Utah County. “The south wants to preserve those agricultural lands,” he said. “The west wants to build their cities out.”