Utah’s fastest growing county empties out most mornings. Leaders are trying to change that.

Water availability, increased traffic and loss of small-town feel are all concerns for Tooele County officials.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) People recreate at a park near a subdivision in Tooele County on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Tooele is the fastest growing county in Utah. Local leaders are trying is to turn the Salt Lake County bedroom community into a destination all its own.

Tooele County may no longer be a secret.

Utah’s second-biggest county had the state’s highest growth rate last year, and planners and public officials have been gearing up for years to accommodate all those new people. The goal is to turn the Salt Lake County bedroom community into a destination all its own, while maintaining the rural feel residents enjoy.

Between the 2010 and 2020 census, the county grew by 14,480 people, and it’s only grown since, mostly via residents moving from other parts of Utah, according to a March report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.

The county had the fastest annual growth rate in the state at 4.2% last year, and by 2060, the institute projects, its population will double to 149,000.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

While its population isn’t as high as other quick-growing areas like Utah or Washington counties, Tooele has something those places don’t: room to grow, at 6,942 square acres. All that space, however, doesn’t mean growth will be easy. The county needs more jobs, schools, homes, transportation and transit options and, crucially, water.

“There’s some pros and cons to growth,” said Jared Stewart, Tooele City’s economic development director. “I think that there’s these wonderful things that come with it. And there’s been some challenges, especially with infrastructure.”

Keeping people in town

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ethan Fowler plays with his 1-year-old daughter Everleigh Fowler at a park in Tooele on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. The family moved to Tooele just over a year ago.

Most of Tooele County’s residents — more than 27,500 of them in 2020, according to census data — commute out of the county for work. Only about 9,000 both lived and worked in the county.

“This is a number that frightens me a little bit,” said Tooele County councilmember Scott Wardle. “I’m not going to lie.”

Those numbers indicate the county doesn’t have enough jobs, which impacts the tax base it has to fund schools for its growing student population. It’s unsustainable, Wardle said.

Crews are currently constructing a new junior high and high school in the district, and Wardle said it’s likely more facilities will need to be built.

“The school system is having to deal with the influx of those age groups,” Wardle said, “which really is the opposite of the other curve in Salt Lake.”

Stewart said Tooele City, the county’s largest city, is working to bring in more businesses as it aims to transform itself into a place where residents “live, work and play.”

The hope is that if residents are working in the county and buying their lunch or running errands where they live, they’ll produce more sales tax revenue that can support amenities and needed infrastructure. More money spent in the city also means more businesses will want to be there too, Stewart said.

In the last few years, Tooele City has attracted businesses like Plastic Ingenuity, Carvana, Leitner-Poma of America and Central States Manufacturing, accounting for more than 800 new jobs. Stewart said officials are also hoping to bolster small businesses. The county recently awarded more than a dozen grants, totaling $72,000, for small businesses.

“If every small business could hire one person,” Stewart said, “that would be thousands of jobs.”

Bolstering transportation

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic drives down South Main Street in Tooele on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.

Tooele County’s vast footprint stretches from the westside of the Oquirrh Mountains, across a swath of Utah’s west desert, the salt flats and Dugway Proving Ground, all the way to the Nevada border.

But most residents live in the Tooele Valley, in places like Tooele City, Stansbury Park, Erda and Grantsville, and for years there’s been just one main road to access Interstate 80 — State Route 36.

Since most residents commute to Salt Lake County or elsewhere for work, that means congestion most mornings and evenings.

Planners’ answer was the Midvalley Highway, which spurs off the interstate, bypassing S.R. 36, and connecting with State Route 138 leading into Gransville.

The Utah Department of Transportation projected the new highway would remove 6,000-8,000 cars per day from S.R. 36 and reduce southbound delays. The highway is part of the department’s longterm “transportation planning initiative” to improve traffic as the county grows.

Crews completed construction on phase one in late 2021, but Wardle said phases two and three, which would widen those roads, are sorely needed, and the County Council is doing what it can to fast track those updates.

What about transit?

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paty Veliz, owner of the food truck Party Taco, prepares a burrito for a customer in Tooele County on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Veliz moved her home and business to Tooele from Salt Lake City over two years ago.

Tooele County currently has a commuter bus line that runs between Tooele City and Salt Lake County, as well as a flex line and UTA On Demand service in Grantsville, Tooele City, Erda and Stanbury Park.

While Union Pacific owns some rail lines in the area, Stewart said it doesn’t seem likely that the Utah Transportation Authority will expand rail service into the county.

UTA released a transit feasibility study in 2021. While most public input indicated a preference for a rail line, the study found that constructing a FrontRunner line connecting Tooele City to Salt Lake City would be the “most challenging option to implement,” as it would take “years, if not decades” to work out an agreement with Union Pacific. It would be the most expensive option by far, too, costing an anticipated $970 million.

The agency also looked at bus options: continuing their current morning and evening commute model, increasing service on that route to all day but decreasing stops, or running the bus in a dedicated lane into Salt Lake County.

The study found that a bus with a designated lane could get commuters into Salt Lake County nearly as fast a train — in about 35 to 45 minutes — and cost $126 million, the authority said.

Water in a dry county

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) New homes are under construction in Tooele County on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.

Wardle said developers have built about 600 new homes in the valley every year for the last three years. Most are single-family homes, but some were apartments and duplexes, as well as homes that can accommodate both new and growing families, he said.

“One of the great pressures we have is that there’s a finite amount of land in Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties, so we are the natural spillover,” Wardle said, “and to meet the economic demands for economic growth…we have to develop water resources that will be sustainable in the next 50 years.”

Tooele County is large, but unlike other counties in the Great Salt Lake Region, Tooele isn’t part of a water district. Instead it supplies water from wells.

Aridification through climate change could make an already difficult water situation even more difficult, as aquifers fill up slower or not at all.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The ultimate goal, Wardle said, is to try to join an existing water district — perhaps the Central Utah, Jordan River or Bear River — to help source water. In the meantime, the county has used American Rescue Plan Act funds to connect existing wells, Wardle said, so if some place needs water but doesn’t have it, it can source it from elsewhere.

Officials are also focused on water-wise development. That means they aren’t looking for Coca-Cola to build a plant in the county, but Leitner-Poma — which manufactures chairlifts, gondolas and other cable transport systems — fit perfectly, Stewart said, because they essentially just needed water for employee’s personal use.

Tooele City has also enacted a voluntary outdoor watering schedule for all residences, businesses, schools and government agencies using culinary water.

Growing pangs

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A billboard for a real estate company is seen behind a “tractor ahead” road sign along State Route 36 in Tooele County on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.

While the county is looking to embrace growth, officials don’t want to build so much that they lose what they say makes the county feel special.

Wardle was hesitant to outline the county’s draw, for fear he’d let the secret out.

“It’s a beautiful valley,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if I want that in the paper.”

But he conceded that people have been discovering Tooele Valley on and off for the last 25 years.

There’s easy access to the mountains, numerous canyons to explore, beautiful sunsets and a retrospect view of Great Salt Lake. He lauded its small town feel and bigger city amenities.

This tension was on display earlier this year during a Tooele City planning commission meeting to discuss the Tooele Business Park, a more than 300-acre plot near 1200 West and 700 South set aside for commercial and industrial use.

Residents said that such a development may increase speeding in the area, decrease property values, obscure views and bring in more light and noise pollution.

Kaleni Mascherino, who lives near the development site, was concerned about how it could change her neighborhood by bringing more traffic and more industrial noise. She said during public comment at an April 12 meeting that residents already deal with smells and train noise.

“That’s all I want to hear,” she said. “I want to hear the trains, and I want to see the stars.”

Stewart said planners took residents’ concerns seriously, and ultimately decided on a tiered zoning system that would only allow shorter, retail buildings along the side of the property that abuts homes and transition into light and then heavy industrial zoning as it moved further west, away from homes. All outdoor light fixtures must be shielded and pointed downward to restrict light pollution.

“It’s tricky, because we want the rural lifestyle, but folks here also want business and jobs, and they don’t want to have to drive far for work or shopping, and it’s hard to balance both,” Stewart said, “but that’s what we try to do with growth — is to make sure as we do grow, we want to mitigate the impacts to residents and maximize the benefits.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign directs traffic towards an open house in a subdivision in Tooele County on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023.

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