Reid Ewing: Questionable donations should not derail Olympia Hills approval

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Council members hear from Salt Lake County residents regarding the proposed 933 acre Olympia Hills, high-density development proposed just west of Herriman.

I teach land use and transportation planning in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. I have not had any involvement with the Olympia Hills development, but have watched the debate over Olympia Hills from a distance, reading periodic articles in The Salt Lake Tribune.

I have not studied this development from a professional standpoint, but have seen it compared to Daybreak (one of the finest examples of master planned communities in the U.S.). It is smaller and denser, but less dense than originally proposed and similar to Daybreak in other respects.

I have also had considerable involvement with campaign finance reform as a former state representative in Arizona who ran a statewide initiative to limit campaign contributions (which passed statewide handily in 1986). So I was most interested in the Sunday article, “Campaign donations from Olympia Hills developer raise eyebrows.” I have two quick points.

First, officeholders and candidates should not be accepting large campaign contributions from developers whose projects they will be ruling on. Whether it actually affects their votes or not, it creates the appearance of impropriety.

So there is one for the anti-development folks. As recipients of campaign contributions, it will be awkward for the members of the County Council to vote for these rezonings.

Second, this development should be approved, as the alternative is the kind of suburban sprawl we already see in Herriman, Riverton, Bluffdale and surrounding communities, except for Daybreak.

I co-authored the book “Costs of Sprawl a couple of years ago, and there are many costs, including total auto dependence and high vehicle miles traveled and high vehicle emissions. I just checked household travel statistics for these three communities from the 2012 Utah Travel Survey, and also checked densities of development in them. They are classic examples of sprawl.

Thinking in the long term (which is where we should be thinking, as residential development lasts hundreds of years), our plan for this region envisions multiple centers of employment and population amidst single-family development. It is called the Wasatch Choice for 2050 Plan, developed by our metropolitan planning organization, the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

These centers would be connected not only by roads but by high quality transit. They would be dense, lively, and pedestrian oriented. Olympia Hills, like Daybreak, would be an outlying center.

This is the kind of polycentric, transit-served urban form that has become the dominant paradigm for regional development in the United States. I teach this paradigm in my land and transportation planning course. In Salt Lake County, and the Wasatch Front generally, we are far from this ideal. But we are planning not for tomorrow or five years from now, but for 2050.

This second point is one for the pro-development folks. Whether awkward or not, I would vote for these rezonings. And I would be a lot more circumspect in the future about whom I accept large campaign contributions from. I hope one issue doesn’t cloud the other.

Reid Ewing is a Professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah

Reid Ewing is distinguished professor and Distinguished Chair for Resilient Places in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah.