Eric C. Ewert: The endless hucksterism worked. Utah is the fastest-growing state for the last decade

Utah politicians are insuring the cancer of endless growth will continue unabated.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ongoing development takes shape around Oquirrh Lake at Daybreak on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. Daybreak, the 4,100-acre master planned community in South Jordan, illustrates the idea of blending higher density housing and walkable community design with ample amounts of open space. That "smart growth" land use approach is being required by Salt Lake County for a proposed development called Olympia Hills, a 933-acre residential and commercial project proposed west of Herriman.

The U.S. Census Bureau just released 2020 population figures and not surprisingly, Utah topped the list of fastest growing states since 2010. 

With 3,275,252 people, Utah easily edged out Idaho, giant Texas, and Nevada for this dubious prize (the detailed figures are now delayed until September).  Utah added half a million people (507,731) in a decade and grew at an astonishing 18.4% (though we won’t gain a Representative in Congress this time).

Just over half of that growth is due to the nation’s highest fertility rate over the 10-year period. But the other half is from immigration, mainly from California. Ten years ago, when the last centennial Census figures were released, I wrote a commentary for The Tribune entitled, “Utah Growing Like a Third-World Country.” In that article, I worried about the rate of growth in the state and warned about the consequences if we didn’t at least commit to plan of “smart growth.”

In the intervening decade we’ve done a bit to fund mass transit, clean up the air and infill some housing, but mostly it’s been runaway business as usual. Typical of most years, $5 million was proposed for clean air projects in 2021, and the Legislature funded a meager $843,000. (To be fair, an additional big chunk will fund public transit.)

Our business and government leaders simply worship growth. They routinely embrace every strip mall, housing development, freeway lane, methane well, coal mine, water diversion, golf course, RV park, truck stop and business park with open arms (and taxpayer money) in their growth-addicted worldview. And they certainly didn’t prioritize a wise COVID response over business as usual.

Our Utah tax money is regularly spent to lure more visitors, residents and businesses to Utah. Through tax breaks, loan subsidies, business incentives, free infrastructure, tax holidays and the like, Utah’s leaders will do just about anything to keep the growth monster chugging along.

For example, your tax money advertises Utah’s five national parks all over the world. It pays teams of lawyers to claim false roadways across Utah’s wild lands so that they can be developed. It finances massive engineering studies and lobbying efforts for the absurd St. George pipeline (Lake Powell is 66% empty, but we’ve underwritten a $9 million “legal defense fund” to grab our share), the Bear River water diversion project (further starving the Once Great Salt Lake) and the Uinta Basin Railway (which will transport nothing but dirty fossil fuels).

Huge sums of unmonitored money are spent recruiting wealthy businesses like Amazon, Facebook and Walmart, gas and oil companies and manufacturing firms. And then there is the Inland Port Authority, an unelected board, hell-bent on turning 16,000 acres in northwest Salt Lake City into a truck and rail traffic-congested and pollution-spewing behemoth. The Legislature just blessed it with $75 million of our tax money.

Except for the developers, housebuilders and business tycoons that overpopulate our Legislature (well over half), who actually benefited from all of this growth? Nobody that I’ve ever talked to. While we’ve gained hordes of people, we’ve lost so very much more: air quality, open space, quite neighborhoods and streets, affordable housing, lonely hiking trails and tranquil lakes, dark nighttime skies, native plants and animals, in short, basic livability and quality of life.

Instead, we now have two national parks (Zion and Arches) that have been forced to close due to overcrowding. (An expanded east entrance proposed at Zion will make it even worse.) Skiers who spend more time in lift lines then actually shredding Utah’s famous powder (which is disappearing fast due to climate change). Commuters in bumper-to-bumper traffic hurtling more miles every year (now 15,500 miles per driver per year) as residents try to afford a place to live far from where they work. Overstuffed classrooms that attract the nation’s lowest per-pupil spending and stress teachers to the point of career changes. And one of the nation’s fastest rising costs of living. (Salt Lake City housing is now unaffordable for most new homeowners.)

Utah is projected to reach a population of 5 million by 2050. To any sane person, this growth obsession is madness. When will it ever end? It won’t, because ignorant Utah voters continue to send growth advocates to nearly all elected positions in Utah.

One forward-thinking non-profit, Alliance for a Better Utah, just released their “Progress Report” which grades our state legislators on issues that support a more livable, just, accountable, and equitable future. As expected, when evaluated for their support of a sustainable future, 20 of 29 state senators and 51 of 75 representatives earned a grade of D or F.

Meanwhile, the deep-pocketed developers marshal immense lobbying forces and campaign contributions to make sure that nothing much changes in the state Legislature, county commissioner offices and planning councils, thereby insuring the cancer of endless growth will continue unabated.

One has to ask these folks, “Is this really the legacy you wish to leave your grandkids?” They’ll be rich monetarily, but poorer in most every other way.

Eric C. Ewert

Eric C. Ewert, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Geography, Environment & Sustainability at Weber State University.