Rapid growth brings challenges – and the opportunity to leave a legacy

Written by: Peter Reichard

This state’s powerhouse economic growth has made it the envy of other states and is one of the key features of life in today’s Utah. But with that growth comes challenges and a constant stream of pivotal development decisions. It puts land use decision making at center stage in the theater of public policy.

Utah Foundation addresses the importance of development decisions in a new report, Building a Better Beehive: Land Use Decision Making, Fiscal Sustainability and Quality of Life in Utah. How communities develop affects the short-term and long-term costs to governments –
and thereby to taxpayers.

A top concern with regard to long-term costs is quality of life. Neglecting quality of life considerations in the name of short-term fiscal gain will ultimately reap a bitter harvest as degrading community quality leads to diminishing returns. For this reason, Utah Foundation examines land use decisions simultaneously through two lenses: fiscal sustainability and quality of life. We look for land use strategies that can accommodate both.

The findings of our fall 2018 Quality of Life survey allow for a sort of checklist against which land use decisions can be considered. From the survey, we received a strong message that Utahns are attached to green spaces and natural assets. We learned that they are especially concerned about traffic congestion and air quality. And we learned that they would like to see improvements in the quality of their community character and streetscapes. All of these findings have major land-use implications.

We also built from our fall 2018 survey of cities and towns. Among the many findings is that local governments are feeling acute consternation from residents about increased density.

But there are opportunities for local governments to use density to improve quality of life. They can promote higher density developments on high-capacity roadways that are struggling economically and aesthetically. They can take advantage of public transit lines and provide a mix of uses that offer job opportunities and amenities to residents of the immediate area and the wider population. They can ease traffic congestion by encouraging the co-location of live, work and play offerings, encouraging pedestrian transport, or connecting residents and workers to public transit. Such developments can provide the added benefit of bolstering the local tax base and easing pressure on tax rates. They can also reduce pressure on the green margins of civilization, allowing for the preservation of farmlands and open spaces treasured by Utahns. Finally, encouraging higher density developments in strategic locations may keep them at a sensible distance from existing lower-density residential neighborhoods, where homeowners see their quality of life (and property values) tied to preserving the character of their community.

With these aims in mind, cities and towns across the state are experimenting with downtown redevelopment efforts, main street enhancements and the development of town centers. They are using placemaking strategies and streetscape enhancements to improve the built environment. They are opening the way for mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented developments. They are paying more attention to the efficiency of land development patterns – which, as our report documents, can yield big variations in property valuations per acre depending upon the approach.

But much work lies ahead.

In the mid- and late-1800s, the Pioneers laid the groundwork for cities like Logan, Ogden, Bountiful, Salt Lake City, Provo and St. George. All these years later, we can stroll their historic streets and enjoy the legacy they left to us. The question for our generation is, how will we address the development opportunities in front of us? What legacy will we leave?

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