How a housing developer bypassed local wishes and flexed its influence with Utah’s Legislature, Robert Gehrke explains

In the final moments of their general session, and with no public comment, Utah lawmakers passed a hyper-local bill that requires Summit County to work with Dakota Pacific.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

A provision added to a major affordable housing bill during the twilight moments of this year’s legislative session will likely result in Summit County becoming home to a massive new housing development near Kimball Junction — no matter how bitterly residents or county officials oppose it.

As you might expect, Summit County leaders and residents are — to put it mildly — displeased.

“I find it extremely frustrating and sad,” said Summit County Councilwoman Malena Stevens. “That’s not democracy.”

At the heart of the matter is a major mixed-use project that developer Dakota Pacific has been trying to build just west of the Kimball Junction intersection (near the Walmart and Skullcandy headquarters, if you know the area).

Originally the county had envisioned, and zoned for, a major tech center on the parcel. However, Dakota Pacific wants to build about 1,100 condo units, roughly a third of which would be affordable housing, and turn a large swath of land into commercial space and a hotel.

The planning commission advised against approving the project, wanting more affordable housing, and because there was no plan to fix already strained traffic at the Kimball Junction intersection.

Last December, about 900 residents turned out — with others turned away because the room was full — to voice their opposition to the project and threaten to run a ballot initiative to stop the project. Dakota Pacific said it heard the concerns and would go back to the drawing board.

But they also went to the Legislature.

Armed with some of the most well-connected lobbyists on Capitol Hill, Dakota Pacific got language added to Rep. Steve Waldrip’s affordable housing bill on the second-to-last day of the session that requires Summit County to propose a “Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zone” (HTRZ), a tool the state set up to offer tax incentives to communities that cluster developments around transit hubs.

If Summit County doesn’t come up with a proposal that Dakota Pacific agrees to, the county could lose some state transportation funding.

The language tacted on to the bill is laser-focused and does not apply to any other project in any other county in the state — only the area where Dakota Pacific wants to build. The legislation passed quickly, getting sign-off in both the Senate and the House within about 6 1/2 hours of it first showing up in the Capitol.

Beyond the high-powered lobbyists, Dakota Pacific has another friend in high places: former state senator Dan Hemmert, now the head of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Hemmert, whose office is responsible for administering HTRZs, is also a former managing partner in the Dakota Pacific equity fund.

Hemmert told me left before the partners branched out into real estate and that he has no financial stake in any of the projects (the partners bought him out of his only landholding when he joined the governor’s office.) He remains friends with his former partners and has spoken in favor of the project.

Mitch Solomon, one of the leaders of Friends of Summit County, which opposes the Dakota Pacific proposal, said they felt blindsided by the Legislature’s decision.

“There really was no opportunity for public input that anybody around here was aware,” Solomon said. “That was really frustrating and in our perspective it kind of flies in the face of the whole conservative notion of local control.”

He said members of his group understand the need for workforce housing and are very supportive of efforts to create more of it, but a project of this size at this location will be a disaster for the greater Park City area. Kimball Junction is already over-congested and, Solomon said, the affordable housing proposed wouldn’t even accommodate the number of workers that would be needed to provide services for people moving into the 1,100 units and the adjoining commercial space.

Solomon said his group has been willing to work with Dakota Pacific, but the Legislature’s intervention on behalf of the developer has made cooperation more difficult.

“I find the circumstances really troubling, especially when it’s so specific to a certain county and a certain project,” Stevens said. “We have an established process which allows for tremendous public input, which is critical when you’re changing land use. … It’s taking [our] zoning authority and forcing us to do something without public input.”

At this point you might be thinking: Isn’t this the same NIMBY-ism (Not-In-My-Backyard) we see every time a new housing project of any size gets floated?

And perhaps there is some of that. At an early hearing on the project, one Park City resident complained that “I don’t think we need Murray in the mountains.” And let’s be clear, we’re talking about land next to the Walmart, McDonalds and an outlet store strip mall. It’s not Deer Valley.

Heading into last year’s municipal elections I moderated a handful of city council and mayoral debates and when candidates were asked about housing density they all gave basically the same answer: We live here because we like our way of life so let other towns deal with growth.

In the meantime, housing prices in 2021 shot up a staggering 27%, with the average house in Park City costing more than $3 million. On Wednesday, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the U. reported that rental prices in Salt Lake County increased by more than 10% last year.

Something’s got to give and there is a role for the Legislature to play in Utah’s housing crisis. Dangling incentives for communities to develop Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zones (HTRZ) around transportation hubs — like the one Summit and Dakota Pacific tried to negotiate — makes sense.

But ramming this project down Summit County’s throat to benefit one specific, well-connected developer, regardless of what legitimate concerns the county or its residents might have — and doing it with no public hearing in the last hours of the legislative session — makes a mockery of the notion of local control.

Simply, it’s a troubling abuse of power.

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