Kyle Mathews: Developers shatter dream of rural living in Erda

Tooele County community has been bombarded with plans for industrial and high-density projects.

Imagine relaxing on your deck looking northward to Antelope and Stansbury Islands, the Great Salt Lake, and cattle grazing on farmland adjacent to your property. Living the dream in rural Utah. Then, reality hits.

I live in Erda, Tooele County, home to about 3,000 residents. What developers want me to see instead is 250 acres that will be home to the Skywalk development complex. Three-story buildings of 1,000 condominiums and apartments, plus homes on postage stamp lots. Housing for low-wage workers at the developers’ industrial park.

Since 2017, my little rural town of Erda has been bombarded with re-zones approved by Tooele County for developments of all sizes and densities, 11 to be exact. I’m not against growth, but it needs to be reasonable, and carefully thought out, with focus on existing infrastructure: country roads, sewer and water. Our options to reduce this onslaught are few: referendums and litigation. Erda recently incorporated, but cancer-like growth just keeps coming. There’s more.

The Romney Group (Josh, Mitt’s son) quietly worked with Grantsville, an adjacent town, to annex 900 acres from rural Erda to build the industrial business park: Lakeview. Erda residents learned from a January 2020 article in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin that the developers had presented the project to Tooele County in 2018.

The concept plan for the “park” shows more than 60 buildings varying in size from 1,107,000 square feet to 35,000 square feet. They claimed that, at build out, the park will create 5,000 warehousing (low paying) jobs. The Bulletin article states “It [the plan] also shows a rail line, built on existing railroad rights-of-way, providing rail access to the business park.”

A rail line? On November 23, 2021, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that “a company, Savage Tooele Railroad filed notice with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) of its intent to build a 12-mile spur off a Union Pacific line that runs parallel to Interstate 80 in Tooele County.” In the Savage filing, they claim that an environmental assessment of its proposed spur is not required because it wouldn’t see more than an eight-train increase in traffic per day.

The Great Salt Lake wetlands system through which the Savage Tooele rail line would cross provides vital feeding and nesting habitat for migratory birds. Those wetlands help with local water flow and filtration. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already raised concern about this. Savage further states its train operations would not violate the Clean Air Act. But the proposed rail line clearly lies in a portion of Tooele County that’s considered a nonattainment area for ozone and particulate pollution that comingles with the pollutants from the Salt Lake Valley. And still, there’s more.

A February 2020 Deseret News article spotlighted Erda’s plight. Tooele County officials, in league with a group of developers, had concocted an idea: 10,000 acres of mostly farmland in Erda and Tooele County could be developed for rail lines, a massive warehouse district and transloading facilities to create a hub of truck and train connections. This would boost Utah’s role in the global import/export economy, while yielding tidy profits for promoters. The Tooele County Commission officially requested that the county be “considered as a primary location for the Utah Inland Port Authority.” Erda had been drawn into the inland port controversy.

A January 2022 Transcript Bulletin article covered the smokescreen by Romney Group Anthon Stauffer that plans for a large-scale Tooele inland port had been canceled. Any future development would be minimal. Do I believe this? Not for a minute. The STB is still taking comments on the rail line Romney and Savage want so badly. And Utah’s Department of Transportation has submitted a favorable letter for the developers. The master plan moves forward.

Must quality of life be sacrificed when there’s land to be developed? Are rural Utahns sacrificial lambs for residential high-density development and a concrete jungle with noise, countless trucks and trains coming and going? Are air quality, natural resources, critical bird habitat and wetlands nothing more than nuisances for developers to conquer.

Their bottom line is monetary gain. Rural culture is expendable. As I sit here on my deck, my heart aches for what will be lost, unless everyday Utahns rise to stop it.

Kyle Mathews

Kyle Mathews is an entrepreneur who was born and raised in Erda.