West Valley City considers sustainable housing plan

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) A tech installs solar panels on top of a home in Salt Lake City in 2016. In nearby West Valley, the City Council is considering a new sustainable zoning tool that would require, among other things, the installation of Tesla solar roofs on all residential homes built within the zoning area.

The West Valley City Council is considering the creation of a new city tool that would encourage developers to build sustainable homes that conserve water, are energy efficient and generate their own power.

Under the proposed “Residential Sustainability Zone,” an applicant would be required to meet a number of highly specific requirements, such as including a Tesla solar roof that generates all the electricity needs of the house, an electric car charger in each garage, Energy Star-rated appliances to decrease energy use, and a maximum lawn amount of 35% to save water.

The idea is to “fill that niche for people who really are Earth-wise,” City Councilwoman Karen Lang said in an interview. “People are being made more aware of how we’re just polluting too much and I think there’s people that really want to take advantage of a situation where they could do their best to add to saving the planet.”

As better technology, cleaner gas and stricter federal emission standards decrease the amount of pollution in Utah’s air from vehicles, pollution generated by Utah homes and small businesses is expected to overtake all other pollution sources in the winter, according to previous estimates from the Utah Division of Air Quality.

That means energy-efficient homes will become increasingly important to fight gunky air in a state that’s capital city was recently named as the nation’s seventh worst among large metro areas.

But because West Valley City is largely built-out — with about 10% of its land remaining for development and most of that zoned for industrial and commercial buildout — it’s unlikely the Sustainability Zone would become a major component of the city’s landscape.

“We do have some vacant ground that’s remaining for residential and so there still could be subdivisions that take advantage of this,” said Steve Pastorik, West Valley City’s planning director. “But again, I would just say putting that in context of we’re 90% built-out, so it would be certainly the minority if someone decides to take advantage of this tool.”

Another potential obstacle is that the zone’s use is voluntary, meaning a developer would have to request to build under the Sustainability Zone and would agree to follow the standards outlined.

West Valley City’s proposed ordinance would create some incentives for a developer to use the zone — primarily a smaller minimum square-footage requirement for each house, which the city said will help reduce energy consumption and offset the cost of the sustainability features.

Developer Daniel Gutierrez has spoken in favor of the proposal at several recent council meetings and wrote in an email that he has “not been able to get it off my mind” since hearing of the proposal.

“My generation is not looking for homes with large lots, homes that are expensive to operate,” he wrote. “So when the idea of sustainability came up, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I feel like [West Valley City] planning and the City Council are thinking ahead of the times.”

Nick Norris — planning director in Salt Lake City, which has among the most aggressive sustainability goals in the state — praised its neighboring city for looking at innovative ways to promote energy efficiency and boost air quality.

Even if the Sustainability Zone isn’t widely used in the state’s second-largest city, Norris said it could still make a difference.

“Even the little things, whether they’re used once or twice, help move the needle," he said. “We’re all in the same region, all in the boat together, and we all need to do it together.”

Salt Lake City has established a number of policies through the years to promote sustainability, including incentives for solar panels and support for transit-oriented developments, which promote public transit and walkability. The city is working with a consultant to look at what else it could improve around development, Norris said.

“There’s always going to be a need to do more,” he said.

Lang plans to vote for the Sustainability Zone proposal, though she hopes to see some amendments to the square footage that she believes would make the units more of a permanent home by better accommodating growing families.

And while she acknowledged the proposal may be “10 years too late” to make a big difference in West Valley City, she hopes it will jump-start conversations among other municipalities.

“We need to start somewhere in reversing our need for resources,” she said.

The West Valley City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday and could choose to vote on it that evening. If approved, Pastorik said the zone would likely be a first around the state, since he’s unaware of any similar zoning rules in other Utah cities or counties.