Sunday, May 01, 2005

A Brave New World Coming for RDAs?

Lots of discussion lately about redevelopment, how it's been used, and what its future should be in Utah. There was some discussion about it at the Vibrant Downtown seminar last Tuesday, but probably more talk took place at the Utah Taxpayers Association conference on the same day. You can read about some of that discussion in the Deseret News story.

I attended the Utah Redevelopment Association special seminar on Friday in Provo to discuss what happened to RDAs in the last legislative session, and what might happen in the next year. Quickly, the legislature pretty well gutted RDAs, but promised to relook the issue during this upcoming year and make some changes in the 2006 legislative session. The primary motivators for what happened in the 2005 session seemed to be the role of eminent domain (and a noisy, messy contentious RDA project for a Wal-Mart in Ogden, where eminent domain was being used really set that issue off), attracting retail businesses with tax increment (no net economic gain from this, the argument went), and the game of siting a new soccer stadium for the Real Salt Lake soccer franchise, all played into the mix.

As some of the presenters at the Provo seminar described it, there was a "perfect storm" convergence during the session that just overwhelmed any attempt at making a favorable case for RDAs. Not only were the events described above taking place during the session, but there was a remarkable coming together of various groups with some beef against RDAs, led by the Utah Taxpayers Association, and included school districts, the UEA, the state office of education, the Utah Association of Counties, and others.

In the end, RDAs very nearly were wiped out altogether, but a valiant effort by a few cities and the Utah League of Cities and Towns at least salvaged something and kept the discussion alive for another round next year.

There was discussion during the session that there would be a task force to rethink RDAs, but in the end, the effort has been rolled into the broader Tax Reform task force, to be chaired by Sen. Curt Bramble (a big opponent of RDAs) and Rep. Wayne Harper (an RDA friend). Likely what will happen is that a subcommittee of the task force will be formed to specifically address RDAs.

Some very good points were made at the Provo seminar. Richard McConkie of the Ogden RDA and president of the Utah RDA Association, said that practioners of redevelopment are really in the business of building communities, that RDAs are a tool to help us do so. He conceded that there are "issues" with the existing RDA law, that there are many different circumstances but that the law tends to be written more as a "one size fits all."

Lincoln Shurtz of the League said that as community builders, we do want to have influence over where and how development goes, and that RDAs are one of the few tools we have to do so. He stressed that there are legitimate reasons for why this tool is needed, such as for incenting industrial and office development that produces basic sector jobs that bring new revenue into the state; to make more productive encumbered areas that might otherwise not develop, such as floodplains, contaminated land, and truly blighted areas; and for the continual redevelopment process that occurs in central business districts in larger communities.

My feeling is that RDAs are indeed a legitimate community development tool, one of the few we have in Utah. The original law, however, was written long ago when conditions were very different. It is obvious, given our current situation with property taxes and with the primary reliance on it by schools, counties, and special service districts, that this may need to be refocused, perhaps to include sales tax and other taxes and fees. The eminent domain power will also likely need to be rethought, and the whole issue of blight will need to be addressed. Perhaps there can be different levels, based on a set of needs for the individual areas to be developed.

More to come on this topic, for sure!

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