How should Utah handle a growing population? Especially as people fill up roads and neighborhoods, adding to worries about congestion, air pollution and what Utah might look like decades from now?

With its booming birthrate and recurring influxes of new residents, the state faces these hard questions, but it’s hardly the first time.

More than 20 years ago, Utah took the equivalent of a big statewide huddle to debate rampant growth and what it meant for the state’s way of life. The endeavor, with hundreds of meetings, prime-time televised events and vast surveys, sounds far-fetched today — especially as the state and the world remain focused on fighting a deadly pandemic.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) In this May 23, 2017, file photo, construction continues on new buildings in Vineyard. New state population estimates show Utah is continuing to grow, but demographers say it isn't just the state's well-known high birth rate that's driving the increase that made it the country's fastest-growing state.

Back then, the country was bouncing out of a mid-1990s recession and people had started pouring into Utah, pushing its population toward 2 million. Development gobbled up open fields across Salt Lake and Utah counties and traffic along Interstate 15 had started grinding to a smog-inducing halt.

Residents grew anxious over the visible ways Utah was changing. State officials and urban planners launched what proved to be a massive public process in hopes of getting ahead of the challenge.

The aim: Let everyday Utahns — and not just politicians — define what was dubbed “quality growth.” The resulting template would help guide land use patterns in the state through 2020.

“I look back on this and, first of all, I can’t believe we tried it,” said then-Gov. Mike Leavitt. “Second of all, I can’t believe that it worked.”

Twenty years and 1.2 million additional Utahns later, many of the outcomes are impressive.

By applying those quality growth strategies across the 10 counties spanning the Wasatch Front and Back and beyond, the state saved vast amounts of land and water, reduced car trips and smog and built more of a mix of housing to better suit its population. The shift also accelerated construction and use of mass transit.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

And these strategies — which today might sound obvious — focused on building compact walkable areas and mixing shops and offices with housing to reduce commutes and save green space. They were never forced on cities and counties. They were put forward as guidelines, but from Farmington to South Jordan’s Daybreak, these ideas fell into place.

“We put scenarios together, took those scenarios to the public and asked them, ‘Where do we want to go?' ” said Ari Bruening, CEO of Envision Utah, a regional planning agency created at the time to lead the effort. “And from there, it was just the power of good ideas, people talking together and thinking regionally and long term.”

In other ways, though, the strategies haven’t worked as well, particularly for southwest Salt Lake County and northern Utah County, where traffic is snarled, affordable housing is hard to find, and residents are growing frustrated.

Report card

Utah’s population has grown to 3.3 million today, driven largely by its nation-leading birthrate.

Envision Utah has released an analysis that compared projections from the late 1990s to the realities of today. That study says Utah saved roughly 140 square miles of farmland and open space that would otherwise have been developed in that time.

Building on fewer acres has also saved a projected $4.5 billion in spending on roads, sewer pipes and other utilities.

Water use is also well below where it would have been over the 10 Utah counties with unchecked growth. That includes the Wasatch Front — Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber counties — as well as Box Elder, Tooele, Juab, Wasatch, Summit and Morgan counties.

Late-1990s projections were that Utahns would be guzzling, flushing and sprinkling 298 gallons per capita per day by now without the strategies. Instead, that’s at about 225 gallons daily, the analysis finds — thanks to better metering systems and teaching residents how to conserve water, as well as developing less land per person.

The state has added about 310,000 new residences since 1998, for a total of about 844,000 homes as of this year. And while Utah has improved its mix of housing types, mostly by lowering the ratio of single-family homes, planners forecast more growth in town homes, duplexes and other homes often referred to as a “missing middle” than has occurred.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hardware Apartments, under construction in Salt Lake City on Monday Nov. 12, 2018.

Single-family homes account for about two-thirds of all Utah housing, below the 75% planners had foreseen if the state didn’t change course. Yet for all the thousands of new apartments built since 2000, they still account for about a quarter of the state’s housing stock, roughly the same ratio as in 1998, research by Envision Utah shows.

And over the same time, a surge in home prices and dwindling acreage of available land in Utah’s urban areas have created a deficit of roughly 50,000 homes affordable to those earning average wages in the state.

Utahns on the Wasatch Front are also spending less time in their cars nowadays than projected in the late 1990 — though not by much.

Estimates were that residents in the four Wasatch Front counties would have to drive an average of 26 miles daily by 2020; in reality, that is about 22 miles a day, Envision Utah reports. But as many rush-hour commuters headed from suburban neighborhoods into the Wasatch Front’s metro areas will tell you, a lot of those miles are slow and congested.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rush hour traffic heading west is backed up on 12600 South at Bangerter Highway in Riverton, Utah. Mayors in southwest Salt Lake County say that area is in a transportation crisis, as major east-west roads serving the area are overwhelmed with traffic at rush hour.

“The inability to have more evenly distributed job centers across Salt Lake County has only exacerbated the issues with traffic and air quality we have today,” Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs said.

The state has dramatically reduced air pollution on the Wasatch Front since 1998, though most of that had little to do with quality growth.

Instead, cleaner fuels and vehicles mandated by the federal government have pushed daily emissions of carbon monoxide and particulate matter to about 934 tons daily as opposed to the 2,541 tons per day that analysts back then feared we’d be living with by now.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sun and blue skies above the smog in the valley, Monday, December 11, 2017.

Building 140 miles of new TRAX and FrontRunner transit lines has helped lighten the skies, too. Envision Utah estimates about 305,098 residents of the 10 counties analyzed now live within a half-mile of a transit station. That, in turn, has brought lots of transit-oriented development near those rail lines over 20 years.

To some, the advent of mass transit alone represents a sea change in how Utah’s leaders think about development and land use.

“If you even said the word ‘transit’ in planning meetings in those early days, it was like it was a joke,” said Wilf Sommerkorn, a retired longtime planner for Salt Lake City and Davis and Salt Lake counties. “‘It’d never work here,' they’d say. So that has been a real turnaround.”

‘Smart growth,’ Utah style

In the late 1990s, such a coordinated plan was without precedent in Utah. Some conservatives considered zoning restrictions almost as a form of socialism, and many city leaders opposed the idea of government intruding on property rights or their own decision-making.

“Politically, this had to be done differently,” said Leavitt, a Republican who took office in 1993. “You had to go beyond formal governance and you had to reach to the citizens and get them to buy a vision. But more important than buying a vision, they had to be part of creating the vision.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt speaks at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace, Saturday, February 6, 2016.

Then-Layton Mayor Jerry Stevenson was one of many who criticized the effort, asserting at a City Council meeting it amounted to forcing “Salt Lake City values” on communities elsewhere in the state.

“As an elected official, when a group like that comes in, the first thing you think is, ‘This is regional planning,’ " said Stevenson, who is now a state senator. “And with regional planning, we’ll lose our autonomy.”

The mayor got a call from Leavitt the following morning. “Anyway, I became one of their board members and, in that process, I went through what you might call ‘the conversion,’ " Stevenson said.

Leavitt also enlisted media outlets, often by appealing personally to the sense of civic duty of their CEOs. Talks in a three-day “Growth Summit” in late 1995 were televised live by what were then Salt Lake City’s three commercial stations.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Gov. Mike Leavitt holds a newspaper insert to show at kickoff of Envision Utah at This Is the Place Sate Park. "Brigham Young," portrayed here by James Arrington, looks on. The real Brigham Young was actually a good planner for his time.

Just as important, state leaders distilled a list of nearly 40 crucial road projects — and put up billions of dollars to pay for them. That included a more than $400 million rebuild of Interstate 15, in what was called “the Centennial Highway Project,” tied to the 100th anniversary of Utah’s statehood in 1996.

“It took 13 years,” Leavitt said, “but they all got done.”

In 1999 — after 26 separate rewrites — the Utah Legislature passed a Quality Growth Act, offering cities incentives to cut urban sprawl, encourage affordable housing, and keep dollars steadily flowing to necessary road and utility projects.

Look around

For a key example of what quality growth ideas crafted in that era look like, think of Daybreak, the master-planned community in South Jordan. The project’s mixed housing clustered to create shared open spaces embodies the principles and it is served by transit. Critics note, though, it still lacks nearby employment centers, forcing a large portion of its residents to drive or ride to work.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daybreak, the 4,100-acre master planned community in South Jordan, illustrates the idea of blending higher density housing and walkable community design with ample amounts of open space as seen along Daybreak Promenade. That "smart growth" land use approach is being required by Salt Lake County for a proposed development called Olympia Hills, a 933-acre residential and commercial project proposed west of Herriman.
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Sandy’s revamped downtown is also held up as a walkable city center that includes housing. The Fairbourne Station area in West Valley City illustrates how transit-oriented development can help create those mixed-use centers. The new apartments along Salt Lake City’s 400 South corridor demonstrate how zoning can help spur more dense housing around transit lines and reduce car usage.

Those exemplify hundreds of smaller master-planned projects built in Utah since 2000.

But runaway growth around the Point of the Mountain in Salt Lake and Utah counties — and the daily traffic jams those residents now endure — offers a counternarrative, one showing how housing construction approved by individual suburban cities can add up to traffic woes for an entire region.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Apartments built in recent years along 400 South in Salt Lake City.

Staggs, the Riverton mayor, estimates that more than 70% of the overall population growth since 2000 has landed on the Salt Lake Valley’s west bench, “in the blink of an eye,” as he put it. Yet plans for better roads to handle the added commuter traffic never quite panned out, he said.

“We just kind of ran out of money and there wasn’t a concerted effort to try to improve any sort of east-west connectivity, beyond the I-215 belt loop,” he said. “And now the chickens have come home to roost for us, so to speak.”

Controversy has erupted of late over the county’s approval of Olympia Hills, a large and high-density master-planned community approved on unincorporated land just outside Herriman’s western border.

Many adjacent homeowners don’t want the project built, fearing its affect on their quality of life and on traffic. “We’ve been an afterthought,” said Staggs, who is challenging Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson for her seat, “and that’s what’s been so frustrating.”

Wilson — who said she and other county officials “have never retreated” from quality growth strategies, nor the bottom-up way they were developed over 20 years — pushed back on that criticism.

She said the county’s involvement will lead to an Olympia Hills that is developed in a responsible way that doesn’t foster sprawl, meeting many of the quality growth goals to which Utah has aspired.

Time for a repeat?

That dispute and other growth-related conflicts in recent years have some calling for another wider debate to chart Utah’s future. The idea has been drawn into sharper relief now that the state is proposing new big-ticket public works projects to spark an economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Utah plans call for billions in spending on worker retraining, roads, mass transit, water projects, housing, outdoor recreation and broadband networks.

Bruening, with Envision Utah, and others say the state could also use an updated growth blueprint in light of the inevitable turnover through the years among elected leaders.

What’s more, COVID-19 has sparked speculation that many Americans, having grown accustomed to working from home, may now flee dense urban areas for more spacious living in the suburbs or rural locales. That could bring an influx of new people to Utah, while also reigniting the problem of urban sprawl.

There are also concerns that fears of the virus could alter ridership on mass transit long term, forcing many back into their cars.

“This is a good time to refocus the discussion,” Sommerkorn said. “How should we be growing? What’s the right way to do this?”