Patti Jensen, 61, has spent her whole life on family property in one of Salt Lake County’s last agricultural areas. She raises horses on her land, located north of the Salt Lake City airport near Farmington Bay, where she’s surrounded by hay fields and pumpkin patches. Migrating birds are regular visitors as they stop by to feed and rest in Great Salt Lake wetlands.
But if a proposed development goes through, Jensen said the area will become awash with rooftops and traffic as the city of North Salt Lake looks to expand across county lines.
“You’ll see nothing but backyards. Not even backyards because most of the houses are compact,” Jensen said. “The quality of life is going to change. The impact to wildlife will be horrible.”
Dorothy Owen, a 30-year resident of the area and chairperson of the Westpointe Community Council, has fought against the development since she caught wind of it last year.
“This is a mess waiting to happen,” Owen said, expressing frustration about how the plan is getting rubber-stamped. “We’re in a period of time where people think nobody’s watching. The world’s crazy right now. ... If there’s something a little shady, this is the time to do it.”
Jensen and Owen have watched urban development encroach from nearby cities over the decades and they know change is coming. They said the North Salt Lake plan, however, is the wrong kind of growth. For one thing, hundreds of new residents would need to use 2200 West, a narrow two-lane road, to commute. Then there’s all the flyover noise from the nearby international airport. Jensen said she’s used to it because she grew up in the area, but newcomers will have a harder time tuning out the whoosh of jets overhead.
“Just to have someone move in without knowing how bad it is, that’s unfair,” Jensen said. And as the airport grows, the noise issue “has gotten worse.”
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Sounding the alarm
The 350-acre annexation proposal, called North Pointe, has plenty of neighbors sounding the alarm about future negative consequences, from residents like Jensen and Owens to Salt Lake City government to Salt Lake City International Airport planners to Great Salt Lake advocates.
The annexation would include the 220-acre Cross E Ranch, an agricultural tourism outfit that wants municipal services access to expand the business. The plan also calls for 125-acre planned development called “Misty River” with about eight houses per acre as well as a charter school. The homes would be “workforce affordable,” according to Xcel Development, the group pushing the annexation.
The developers declined to be interviewed for this story, but provided comments by email.
“Due to much higher demand than supply, rising land prices and rising construction costs, working families find it almost impossible to purchase more affordable housing in Salt Lake County,” Xcel said in a statement.
The developers intend to offer townhouses starting at $250,000 and single family homes starting at $320,000.
The site is currently unincorporated. Because the proposal involves North Salt Lake in Davis County absorbing land across county lines, the developers needed a green light from Salt Lake County. The County Council voted against the idea in September 2019 with a 6-3 vote.
The council issued a resolution citing the “considerable” citizen comments opposing the plan, Salt Lake City government’s objections as well as the confusion a cross-county city would create for school and service districts. The resolution also noted the plan created a patchwork of unincorporated islands in the area, which would create a headache for the county when it comes to services like road repair and snowplowing.
In a reversal on July 21, council members Ann Granato, Richard Snelgrove and Steve DeBry switched their votes, allowing the annexation to move forward. Those council members either did not respond to numerous interview requests or declined to comment on why they changed their minds. A policy analyst for DeBry said his main reason was because landowners who didn’t want to be involved in the annexation were allowed to opt out. A statement provided by Granato’s policy analyst echoed that reasoning.
It included a provision that future homeowners in the area sign an acknowledgement that there will be airport noise.
“I just find that a bit of a questionable business model, to sell a product knowing there’s going to be a potential flaw and asking people not to worry about it,” said council member Jim Bradley, who opposes the development. “Is there a need for housing? Of course there is. Are there problems with that development site? In my opinion, there are.”
North Salt Lake officials say they’re still in the early stages of considering the proposal. The City Council recently commissioned a consultant to conduct a study that updates their annexation policy plan. Xcel Development is picking up the $15,250 tab.
“We need to be educated and do more research before we have firm opinions” about the development, said Mayor Len Arave.
Xcel Development recently conducted a third-party noise study of the site, but declined to provide the study to The Salt Lake Tribune. The developer also intends to add additional insulation to homes to help block outdoor sound.
For the last 40 years, Salt Lake County has had an overlay zone limiting growth in the area. Salt Lake City International Airport planner Brady Fredrickson said until now, it has hindered incompatible land use.
“It’s one of the key reasons you see Salt Lake City Airport, [just] 7 miles from downtown, being isolated from noise complaints,” Fredrickson said.
Written acknowledgements of plane noise and insulation likely won’t be enough to prevent conflicts.
Right now, if a plane takes off from the east runway it can depart to the north, climb, and then turn east, and a plane taking off from the west runway can depart to the north, climb, and then head west. But if there are enough noise complaints from the development, Fredrickson said, the Federal Aviation Administration could require the airport to reroute traffic, regardless of any acknowledgement residents signed. Planes taking off from the east runway would then need to fly northwest, a direction that conflicts with departures from the other runways. That would mean flight delays as planes wait for the air space to clear, more idling jets and worsening air quality.
“We are surrounded by mountains,” Fredrickson said. “There are only so many places we can fly.”
The aviation planner also cited public safety issues, citing a deadly crash this summer where a plane departing the South Valley Regional Airport hit a West Jordan home a mile after takeoff. The North Pointe site is just 2 miles from the Salt Lake City airport’s east runway.
Salt Lake City recently unveiled the first phase its new $4.1 billion airport expansion, and officials only expect air traffic to increase in coming years, especially on the runway closest to the site.
“I think it’s a burden that’s going to last for the lifetime of that development. Owner after owner ... will have a major impact to their quality of life,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.
Mendenhall said she supports development in the North Pointe area, but not residential neighborhoods.
“We would support and offer developers a different path for commercial use, which we think would be a better path for the area,” Mendenhall said.
Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said the city had long-term plans to annex North Pointe and zone it for light manufacturing.
The city communicated those plans to Xcel Development, Wharton said, but then “the developer hired a lobbyist and went directly to the county and to North Salt Lake.” He added that he didn’t realize how aggressive the lobbying would be.
“For whatever reason the developer is very set on doing residential,” Wharton said. “My understanding is that it is all financially motivated.”
Steve McCutchan, a planner for the North Pointe developers, said the company has hired “government liaisons,” not lobbyists.
The two lobbyists registered with the county are Marcus Jessop, government affairs director with the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, and Matt Clewett, public policy director for the board.
The Salt Lake Board of Realtors was the single largest campaign contributor in the last election (2018) for two of the three county council members who switched votes on the proposed development — DeBry and Granato.
Most of the other sitting council members, including Snelgrove and those who voted against the annexation, received donations from the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, although it generally was not their largest contributor.
McCutchan disagreed that the development plan was purely profit-driven.
“What Salt Lake County needs now is more workforce affordable housing. The county is in an affordable housing crisis,” McCutchan said.
Correction: 12 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020: This story was updated to state that Marcus Jessop and Matt Clewett are registered as lobbyists with Salt Lake County. (The county had mistakenly omitted them from its lobbyist list). Also added was the information that the Salt Lake Board of Realtors donated to most of the County Council members.