Communities try to become cities to push against county control

From Iron County to Cache Valley, communities in Utah could become cities in the coming months through incorporation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes above Pineview Reservoir in Eden on Thursday, June 23, 2022. Much of the Ogden Valley, like Eden, could incorporate into a city in the coming years.

Communities around Utah are opting to do away with living in unincorporated parts of their county — pushing instead to gain control of the decisions over development, growth and water usage that will shape them for years to come.

As of June, there are five communities trying to establish themselves as independent cities, free from having a county commission or council make those decisions.

But to become a city, communities must go through the process of incorporation and winding layers of bureaucracy that don’t always lead to the desired outcome of localized control — especially if the majority of your potential city residents don’t want to become a city at all.

In Weber County, there’s a push to make a new city in the area’s valley community just east of Ogden. It’s the second push for a new city in the county recently.

The last attempt at a new city ended at the ballot box, as residents of the proposed city of West Weber saw their push for incorporation voted down in 2020. Of the 2,780 that cast their ballots, 56% voted against becoming a city.

Nick Dahlkamp is one of the handful of residents in eastern Weber County pushing to incorporate the new city in the Ogden Valley.

Dahlkamp, a former engineer and project manager, said the push to incorporate comes from the desire for some in the area to govern for themselves rather than have the county government make the decisions.

“The common theme I was hearing was … (people in the Ogden Valley) felt like even though they were presenting information to the county commissioners, their voices weren’t necessarily being heard,” Dahlkamp said.

The desire for local control is a common theme for many cities going through incorporation. In the Ogden Valley, petitioners are worried about the speed and volume of development happening in the area.

Jess Bird, the city council chair for the newly-minted Tooele County town of Erda, said residents were unhappy with decisions made by the county government over water and growth, which have set off a long road of legal fights and referendums.

“With incorporation, you’re going to gain a more localized planning commission, you’re going to gain a more localized city council making those zoning decisions,” Bird said. “But at the end of the day, whether your county or city planning commission is making decisions, you’re still making decisions based on state law.”

So you want to be a city, huh?

While for West Weber the hope of becoming a city was short-lived, for Erda, successfully becoming a city didn’t come easily.

The steps to incorporate have changed slightly over the years, due in part to SB37 passed earlier this year. Before, much of the process was administered by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

The law moved more of the administrative aspects of incorporation to the county, according to Brody Bailey, an elections coordinator and incorporation specialist in the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

Bailey noted that if a community started the incorporation process before SB37 went into effect, they will abide by the old set of rules.

But in large part, the process is the same: the road to incorporation starts with a petition. People within that community must submit a request for a feasibility study — which is a study conducted by an outside agency that would determine whether a proposed study is viable as a stand-alone municipality, looking at the tax base, expected growth and other factors.

In order to get that study, the petitioners must get signatures equal to 10% of the total private land area within the proposed city borders, along with signatures equal to 7% of the private property value, according to Bailey.

“That’s determined just by basically adding the value and the acreage of each person’s property together to see if they meet that threshold,” he said.

After county and state officials validate the signatures to make sure a community meets the set thresholds, then the state will hire an outside feasibility consultant to carry out the study. A draft study is reviewed by the petitioners, county and state before it’s finalized, Bailey said. Typically, it takes about four months to complete the study.

Once that’s done, a community will hold two public meetings so residents can ask questions and provide feedback on the outcome of the study. Among other things, a study would outline whether or not a community’s taxes would increase, a common sticking point for people in a proposed city.

From there, another round of signatures must be gathered. This time around, petitioners must get signatures from 10% of the proposed city’s registered voters, and those signatures must be from 90% of the proposed city’s voting precincts, Bailey said.

Assuming everything goes through and is approved by the county and state, the question of incorporation is then added to ballots during the nearest election. A simple majority is all that’s needed.

Voters within the proposed city boundaries have two choices. One, to approve or deny the area’s bid to become a city, and two, what kind of government that would be.

Potential cities

As of June, the five places looking at incorporation are Riddermark in Iron County, Spring Lake in Utah County, Ogden Valley in Weber County, West Hills in Summit County and Benson in Cache County.

Places like Riddermark and Spring Lake are nearing the end of the feasibility study phase, as Bailey said both have received drafts of their studies earlier this month.

“So the feasibility studies will be completed within the next few weeks,” Bailey said.

The feasibility study for Ogden Valley has yet to begin, as the area is currently in the 90-day phase where the Lieutenant Governor’s Office must select a consultant to do the study. Once it’s picked, the consultant has another 90 days to complete it. West Hills is in the same spot as Ogden Valley, though Bailey said his office just recently certified their signatures needed to kick off the feasibility study.

The newest to the process is Benson, a community on the western side of Cache Valley.

Bryson Behm, the interim Cache County Clerk/Auditor, said Benson’s application for a feasibility study was turned in just a few weeks ago. Benson’s is still being evaluated to see whether or not the signature stage was done correctly, meaning there’s still a way to go in the process.

“They’re at the very beginning,” Behm said in a phone interview. Through Behm, petitioners in Benson declined to comment on this story.

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