Will new council members slow booming growth in southern Utah bedroom community?

Since 2000, Ivins’ population has more than doubled, from 4,500 to an estimated 11,100 residents.

(Sharon Barton) Ivins council member Sharon Barton.

Ivins • Neophyte Ivins Council members Sharon Gillespie, Sharon Barton and Kevin Smith swear they are excited and eager to start their new jobs on the Ivins City Council, no matter how hot the political waters, to help shape the burgeoning southern Utah town’s future.

“I’m deeply honored and humbled that I was elected, and I am looking forward to serving the residents of Ivins,” said Gillespie, the leading vote-getter in the November election.

New council, new dynamic

Gillespie and Barton’s election could represent a bit of a sea change for the council in terms of development. Since 2000, Ivins population has more than doubled, from 4,500 to an estimated 11,100 residents. That upswing, accompanied by a surge in short-term rentals and other high-density housing, has been attended by a downturn in public support for Ivins’ growth and the way it has been managed.

For example, a December 2022 survey indicated that more than 70% of Ivins residents were opposed to more high-density housing such as townhomes and condominiums in their city, and 81% were not in favor of additional apartment complexes and other rentals. They were also dissatisfied with the way city officials were handling growth.

Residents’ angst about growth comes at a time when state legislative auditors have warned that Utah faces a critical housing shortage, which is pushing prices out of reach for many homebuyers.

Both Gillespie and Barton, who helped gather the surveys, tapped into resident discontent with their slow-the-growth campaign. They were also actively involved in Defenders of Greater Ivins (DOGI), an advocacy group that sought to overturn the council’s approval in 2022 to rezone 113 acres of Utah Trust Lands Administration property from low residential to a higher density.

(Sharon Gillespie) Ivins council member Sharon Gillespie.

Rize Capital is developing the 113 acres as “The Retreat,” a mix of residential, commercial and resort short-term rentals taking shape at Puerto Drive and 400 South. DOGI members argued the city did not follow proper procedure in rezoning the former Utah Trust Lands Administration land. After failing to meet the deadlines for appealing the ruling via the initiative or referendum process, DOGI took its appeal to 5th District Court, where Judge Keith Barnes ruled in the city’s favor last July.

For his part, Council member Kevin Smith said he is not a proponent of more short-term rentals. Like Gillespie and Barton, he wants to be more thoughtful about what the city approves but is more pro-growth.

“Where I hope to make a difference is that I want to see us work things out and let the legislative process take precedence over the legal process,” said Smith, who is CEO of the Tuacahn Center for the Arts and currently serves on the Utah State Board of Tourism Development, the Greater Zion Tourism Advisory Board, among others.

Gillespie and Barton both say they are not anti-development. Even though they want to preserve Ivins’ identity as a bedroom community and a great place to live, they oppose a blanket ban on new projects. Nonetheless, they don’t want to give carte blanche to developers, and they want to ensure residents’ voices are heard.

Sharon Gillespie

A retired business executive with 40 years of experience with corporate giants like Johnson & Johnson and Bausch & Lomb, Gillespie and her husband, Tim, moved to Ivins six years ago. She has been a regular at municipal meetings and local volunteer groups ever since.

Gillespie said her involvement with the 2022 survey and reading 150 pages of residents’ comments served as the impetus for her to run for the council.

“I discovered that Ivins residents were not happy with what was going on,” she said. “They didn’t feel heard. That’s how I came up with the tagline for my campaign: ‘Your city, your council.’ "

As she embarks on her council service, Gillespie wants to better connect with residents through social media. She also aims to play a prominent role in revising the city’s general plan, which has been in place since 2015 and was drafted with the goal of making Ivins a resort community.

With Red Mountain Resort, Tuacahn and Black Desert Resort a $2 billion golfing, dining and hospitality mecca under construction in Ivins, Gillespie said that goal has been met. Now, she added, it is time for Ivins leaders to step back and be more thoughtful about future development.

“Many of us have come here from places where growth … got out of control and wasn’t managed well,” Gillespie said. " And we’ve seen the repercussions of that long term. So we want our beautiful, special Ivins to be thoughtful as it moves forward.”

Sharon Barton

Like Gillespie, Barton also has extensive business experience. She is a retired business consultant who loves animals and once ran an equine massage business in Oregon. Since relocating to Ivins from Arizona with her husband, Michael, in 2015, she also has been a fixture at municipal meetings and has immersed herself in local issues and volunteer efforts.

Since entering the campaign, Barton has stepped away from DOGI to better focus on her council chores. Her primary goal is to work with other council members to revise the general plan and then “revamp and refine” the city’s ordinances and land-use maps.

(Kevin Smith) Ivins council member Kevin Smith.

“We need to … redo our ordinances so that they are more protective of our future and Ivin’s visions and values,” she said.

Barton also wants to focus on pursuing business opportunities to support the new resort developments, while preserving the city’s “bedroom community” status. As for the dearth of attainable housing in Ivins, she said it is important to strike a balance between providing housing for entry-level families and protecting the investments of existing residents.

“I don’t think we as a city have come up with a real workable solution at this point,” she said.

Drafting a responsible and balanced budget and providing sufficient resources for public safety are other priorities Barton identifies.

Kevin Smith

A longtime Ivins resident and CEO of Tuacahn, Smith is no stranger to government though he is a council novice. After ensuring Tuachan remained solvent through the pandemic, thanks in part to securing $1.9 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, funding, Smith decided to give elective office a try at the urging of friends and neighbors.

Smith is willing to leave the welcome mat out for growth, provided it is done the right way

“You have people who move here and don’t want to see any more growth,” he said. “Then you have those who still want to move here and appreciate there being some managed growth. We need to find a good balance … I want to make sure we don’t unnecessarily grow too fast or unnecessarily grow too slow.”

Smith points to Black Desert Resort as a model for positive growth.

“I think Black Desert is going to be that tide that raises all boats,” Smith said about the resort that is projected to employ 2,500 people and generate $90 million in sales and transient room tax over the next 40 years.”

Like others, Smith said the influx of short-term rentals does not help solve Ivins’ lack of affordable housing but is not sure what the solution is, and added it is not “a priority for me.” He further wants to be a strong proponent of the arts and to promote civility in municipal government.

Part of Tuacahn’s mission, he noted, is to “match the majesty of the canyon.” He wants Ivins to apply that same slogan.

“If we continue to move forward in matching the majesty of the canyon and our wonderful red rock surroundings, then we’ll leave a place for the next generation that they can love.”