A Weber County ballot question on creating a new city is as contentious as it is confusing

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Wayment, a third-generation dairy farmer, has spearheaded an effort to annex all of Warren and its estimated 400 residents into Plain City (to avoid being included in the proposed new West Weber City.) As rooftops overtake farmland, a clash of values is playing out in city councils, the county commission and even the state Legislature. A question on the ballot to create the new city across the western swath of the county has divided newer residents and those with roots several generations deep in a tug of war over incorporation vs. annexation.

West Weber County • As rooftops overtake farmland here, a clash of values is playing out in city councils, the County Commission and even the state Legislature — and it all has created some chaos going into the Nov. 3 election.

A question on the ballot to create a new city across the western swath of the county has divided newer residents and those with roots several generations deep in a tug of war over incorporation vs. annexation.

“It’s a mess out there right now,” says Scott Jenkins, a plain-spoken Plain City resident.

A Weber County commissioner and former state senator, Jenkins said he has been supportive of an ambitious push to merge the unincorporated areas of Reese, Taylor, Warren, West Warren and West Weber into one new city called West Weber.

If approved by voters, the city would span 57 square miles and include almost 4,700 residents. It’s farthest western border would extend into the Great Salt Lake.

The incorporation effort picked up steam late last year and is assured a place on the fall ballot.

But what the vote means is uncertain and still shifting. Residents of Taylor and Warren have filed petitions seeking annexation into Plain City and West Haven as an escape hatch. They want out of the proposed new city because they fear its unknowns, including possible tax and fee increases.

“I don’t have any problem with annexation if they want to do it,” Jenkins says. “But it’s going to mess up the incorporation issue. And then you’ve got all these developers … everywhere you look the pressure’s on right now.”

West Haven already is the county’s fastest growing city, according to U.S. census data, mushrooming in population by 72% since 2010. Plain City during the same period has grown by almost 40%.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Why incorporate?

Greg Bell (not the former lieutenant governor) is a resident of unincorporated Taylor and also serves on the county’s Western Weber Planning Commission.

As one of five original sponsors of the proposed incorporation, Bell hopes that forming a new West Weber City will give residents more local control.

Three full-time county commissioners currently govern Weber’s unincorporated areas. And Bell pointed to what he sees as “a larger issue at play” in the incorporation fight.

“Weber County government has legislative, executive and sometimes judicial powers,” Bell said. “So we essentially have three guys with all three branches of government wrapped up into one.”

While some argue that this streamlined form of government is more nimble and cost effective, Bell believes it is an unhealthy concentration of power.

Why not incorporate?

Scott Wayment, a third-generation dairy farmer, has spearheaded the effort to annex all of Warren and its estimated 400 residents into Plain City.

“If we’re going to be locked into a city, we’d like to be in one where part of our community is already in there and we know what they are — what their tax base is, what things are going to cost,” Wayment says. “We’re kind of kin … the kids go to school there, we go up there to shop. It’s just a natural fit for us.”

Amid jockeying over the proposed West Weber City incorporation and the resulting annexation petitions, Utah lawmakers have waded in, attempting to balance competing interests.

The result has been more confusion.

During the legislative general session that ended in March, Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, and Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, passed HB393. The legislation was straightforward, prohibiting cities from accepting annexations from an area included in an incorporation effort that had already been certified for the ballot.

Waldrip said that without the bill, annexations could happen literally up to the night of an election. And to him that made no sense.

“It’s a tough balance between property rights and the right to the ballot,” Waldrip said. “At that time, it was agreed that once the lieutenant governor has certified something for the ballot … [voters] have a vested right, a strong right in ensuring they know exactly what’s going to be on the ballot.”

But the ground shifted again in June when, during a legislative special session, the same local lawmakers quietly inserted a temporary loophole into HB393. This new amendment, SB5004, opened a six-week window during which cities anywhere in the state but Salt Lake County, could accept annexation petitions despite of a pending incorporation vote.

That window, which closed Aug. 5, gave Wayment’s petition to annex Warren into Plain City, along with others, the chance to proceed regardless of the approaching election.

Buxton, the primary sponsor of SB5004, did not respond to requests for comment.

But Waldrip attempted to explain the temporary reversal of course from the original bill.

“[Some constituents] felt it took away too many of the rights of individuals to determine which city they wanted to be a part of,” he said. “So SB5004 was the best compromise I could get to keep some certainty in the law for an election. It gave a window for people to be annexed out, but then it closed.”

Plain City Mayor Jon Beesley expects the Warren annexation to come up for a City Council vote “as soon as we get everything certified and through the process.”

“It’s not on a super-crazy fast track, but we’re going to do it as quickly as we can,” Beesley said. “It will happen before the November election.”

Bell says he’s he’ll do what he can to fight that, including filing an injunction if necessary.

And West Haven could soon do the same, which threatens to siphon off more land and residents from the pending incorporation.

West Haven Mayor Sharon Bolos said the city has received several annexation petitions, perhaps because it currently levies no property tax.

After incorporating in 1991, West Haven developed a general plan that included land that could be annexed at a future date.

“We drew that boundary long before this [West Weber] incorporation process,” Bolos said. And the city had a recent moratorium on all land-use changes, including annexations, but that expired in July.

“Landowners have a choice at this point,” Bolos said.

One development’s saga

A pending development named Taylor Landing aptly illustrates the current culture clash.

Tremonton-based Heritage Land Development’s plan to build 156 homes on 102 acres — with 58 of those acres set aside for open space and agricultural use — raised some thorny questions.

Western Weber Planning Commission member Andrew Favero drew fire over a possible conflict of interest by voting in favor of the project even though it could benefit his brother, Tom Favero, who has been chosen to farm the Taylor Landing open space.

Andrew Favero was one of two yes votes for Taylor Landing’s preliminary plan on May 12, while four commissioners voted no because it failed to meet the cluster code’s requirement that prime agricultural land be used for open space.

When Favero family ties came into question, meeting minutes reflected that Matt Wilson — legal counsel for the Planning Commission — determined that Andrew Favero’s lack of financial or ownership interest in his brother’s business indicated no conflict of interest.

“It’s not that I want to see agriculture go away in this area — but it is,” Andrew Favero said in a phone interview. “And the people who are moving out here should not be so inclined to tell the people that have been here for generations what they can and can’t do with their property by dictating policy.”

The Taylor Landing matter went on appeal to the Weber County Commission in mid-June, and, on June 23, it overturned the Planning Commission’s denial in a 2-1 vote.

That decision provided fodder for a lawsuit in Ogden’s 2nd District Court based on allegations that elected officials skirted the county’s land-use ordinance and engaged in improper communication with one of the parties.

On July 30, Shae Bitton filed that claim against Weber County, its governing body and Heritage Land Development. Both entities recently filed separate motions to dismiss the case.

Bitton, a 20-year Taylor resident and a West Weber incorporation proponent, has been concerned over Weber County’s land-use ordinance ever since it first began to allow higher density and lots smaller than 1 acre. She and other residents didn’t just complain about it, they took action.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shae Bitton, a 20-year resident of the unincorporated community of Taylor, has for years been concerned over Weber County’s land-use ordinance and the concentrated power in the county commission. Bitton is a proponent of the incorporation of a new West Weber. She has filed a claim against Weber County, its governing body and Heritage Land Development over approval of a development near her home called Taylor Landing. "They don't listen to us," she says of the three commissioners.

“We had a petition and fought it — and we beat that,” Bitton said of their push more than 15 years ago to slow the pace of growth.

But developers, arguing they couldn’t make money on 1-acre lots, pushed back, giving rise to the county’s cluster subdivision ordinance that allowed for higher density with more open space.

Bitton described that initial cluster subdivision ordinance as vague and ambiguous and said she worked to help improve it over the years.

In its first iteration, Taylor Landing — on land near the Bitton home — began as the five-phase Sunset Equestrian development.

Sunset’s first phase got grandfathered into the old cluster subdivision code, Bitton recalled, “so the open acreage is a mess.”

Now phases two to five — reintroduced as Taylor Landing — are to be developed by Heritage Land Development and Sierra Homes.

“So that is one fight that I’m personally fighting,” Bitton said, noting that the larger incorporation effort is fueled by frustration similar to hers over Weber’s three county commissioners.

“They don’t listen to us,” she said.