Gov. Cox open to a ‘rebalance’ of city powers after Draper homes collapse. It’s about time, Robert Gehrke says.

A state geologist told lawmakers that cities need more latitude to tell developers “no” based on potential hazards.

(Photo provided by Amanda Warlbow) The remains of a house in Draper that partially collapsed due to sliding conditions on April 22, 2023.

If anything good comes out of the collapse of two homes in Draper, it’s that Utah leaders might actually consider whether the state has gone too far in letting developers build wherever they want — and the state’s top geologist says it’s a discussion that needs to be had.

“Urbanization has really pushed people into areas that might not be as safe geologically,” Bill Keach, the director of the Utah Geological Survey, told legislators this week. “When we see homes falling, they’re probably in places 40 years ago we wouldn’t have put a home, but there’s a great push to get in those areas.”

Expanding into areas that may be prone to landslides or other geologic hazards requires that there be careful investigations of the soils and adequate engineering to ensure proper drainage and grading.

But, Keach said, cities also need to be able to impose standards and the ability to, if necessary, deny developers the right to build.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

“It’s really hard for a municipality to say no,” he said. “If they want to say no, but a landowner can get an engineer to report that ‘We can mitigate this,’ [the cities] are sort of obligated to give that permit — and I think we need to find ways to give these municipalities better teeth to monitor that.”

And let’s be clear: Cities have been pretty much entirely defanged by the Utah Legislature — a group comprised of and beholden to developers and real estate interests.

This issue is not new and Draper is not unique in dealing with slides. With such a wet winter, Keach said his office has recorded about 100 landslides — and there are certainly more they haven’t recorded — in the last six weeks from Cache to Kane counties. (Keach said the Draper home collapse is not a typical landslide, per see, calling it an “infrastructure failure.”)

But the shocking video of two homes in Draper sliding into a steep ravine has focused attention on the question of whether developers have too much control.

“It’s certainly worth looking at,” Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday during his monthly PBS Utah news conference.

“We’re still trying to find this balance of making sure that municipalities aren’t just saying no to everything — because that’s led to the rising price of housing in the state — but making sure they’re also not saying yes to development in very dangerous places,” Cox said.

Cox said he has had conversations with Draper Mayor Troy Walker, who told me last month that he knows there are areas that pose the risk of landslides.

Recently, I visited the area with University of Utah Prof. Kathleen Nicoll who showed me numerous landslides and explained how soft, crumbly soil in Draper’s steep Traverse Mountain slopes makes it prone to slippage.

But Walker told me that when the city has pushed back against past projects, they were told by the state property rights ombudsman that the city either had to approve the project or buy out the developer. Simply saying no is not an option.

That leaves homeowners to fend for themselves.

“We have a property rights issue we’re trying to balance,” Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said this week.

Cities that try to reject a development can be sued for the value of the property had it been developed — putting taxpayers on the hook for potentially millions.

“It’s a little bit of a conundrum what we do there and we’ve kind of turned to the buyer beware program, and that has caused some people to lose some property,” Sandall said.

The problem is that “buyer beware” only works if the buyer has all of the information needed to make an informed, educated decision, and developers don’t have an obligation to provide that information.

“Sometimes we don’t inform the buyers well enough what those [hazards] are and I think there are ways to enhance the buyer beware part,” Keach said.

Additionally, he said, the state could adopt a model geologic hazards ordinance for cities to follow; adopt standards for grading and fill on building projects; and build a database of geologic reports submitted to cities to help with mapping and investigation.

Beyond that, the state could provide the Utah Geological Survey with the resources it needs.

For two years in a row, Cox proposed a pretty meager $120,000 increase to the agency’s budget to map landslides in rapidly growing areas. The subcommittee that oversees UGS put it reasonably high on its priority list, but the Legislature didn’t come up with the money.

And, while it won’t be easy, it is essential that the Legislature give cities back the tools they need to do their jobs and protect the lives and property of its residents.

“I think we can rebalance that piece,” Cox said. “And I’ve expressed an interest in exploring that, and making sure that we are doing enough in those areas that could cause problems, as we saw in that [Draper] tragedy.”

Correction: May 19, 2023, 9:10 a.m. • This story has been updated to correct the spelling of state geologist Bill Keach’s name.