Thursday, June 30, 2005

More (and More...and More) on Eminent Domain

I am always amazed and somewhat chagrined when a media frenzy takes hold on a particular issue. But in the case of the Supreme Court's ruling on eminent domain, it isn't just the media that's gone into a frenzy, but all the political pundits out there as well. Reasoned discussion, logic, and facts often go right out the window during such frenzies, as people whip themselves into a lather trying to get one up on the last guy who commented.

It takes some careful looking around to get a more balanced view of things, and that's what is needed on this topic.

One that I've found was with Margaret Warner of PBS's NewsHour on June 24. Her guests were Bart Peterson, mayor of Indianapolis and vice-president of the National League of Cities; and John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and president of the Congress for New Urbanism.

As I've read and listen to commentators recently, you can get the distinct impression that the Court created a new right of eminent domain for economic development purposes with this ruling that did not exist before, and that all homeowners now need to fear the indiscriminate taking of their homes for a shopping mall or Wal-Mart. But the court primarily left standing a power long exercised by local government.

As Bart Peterson put it on NewsHour, "...the Supreme Court didn't produce any new rights or didn't order any new rights, didn't expand any new rights for cities. All it really did was affirm the status quo. These are powers that cities all across America have had already and the Supreme Court simply said that they were not going to restrict those powers."

So if this power has long existed, why now, just because the High Court affirmed this power, will we see a sudden rush to egregious takings of homes and property to hand over to rich developers? Wouldn't past history argue that by and large, states and locals have been exercising this power with appropriate restraint and caution?

Peterson continues, "...I don't think we have to fear that cities are suddenly going to rush out and try to condemn anything. It's used sparingly and it's used sparingly because it's unpopular. Nobody really wants to use the power of eminent domain but it's essential as a tool to be able to revitalize depressed communities all across America."

And the court made it clear that states have the power to define and restrict this power as they deem it appropriate. Again, from Peterson, "...we'll see some states review their laws and see whether they think they're restrictive enough or whether they want to add anything... . But I really think that state and local government officials are...smarter than John gives us credit for."
The entire transcript is worth the read. You'll also see John Norquist's arguments against the ruling and why he thinks its bad. By the way, I caught a bit of Radio West today on KUER, where they had Andres Duany on, who is the "godfather" of New Urbanism. He supported the ruling, saying that in the redevelopment of our aging and deteriorating communities, sometimes the use of this power is necessary. Anyway, read the Margaret Warner interview here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

It Ain't Easy Doing Smart Growth

A couple of interesting stories in yesterday's Salt Lake dailies point out the difficulty in getting "smart," or as we call it here in Utah, "quality" growth ideas accepted.

Heather May's story in the Trib relates how new higher density apartment projects in downtown Salt Lake, located near TRAX stations, still opt for ample parking. Can't seem to get people to shake that need for those cars.

Heather writes, "the developer of a massive housing project under construction at 500 East near a TRAX stop on 400 South wants city approval to pave over a planned plaza in the middle of the Emigration Court development to make way for about 100 more parking stalls. ... (T)he top complaint of managers of other city apartment buildings is the lack of parking."

"Last week, the city lauded the groundbreaking of The Metro Condominiums at 350 S. 200 East as being a transit-oriented development. But developer Alan Wood said Monday he 'made a conscious decision' to add about 60 more stalls than required...for the 117 condo units. ... Wood is not convinced downtown homeowners will give up their cars even if they live at the doorstep of TRAX."

In a related story, Brady Snyder of the Desert News writes about the opposition of "...city planners, certain City Council members and some residents" to higher density, high rise residential buildings near TRAX stations on 400 South.

These opponents "say the planned TOD ordinance, which allows for greater building heights along light-rail corridors like certain parts of 400 South, will create more ugly monstrosities that are bad for the neighborhood.

"Tom Mutter, chair of the Central City Neighborhood Council, said neighbors remain upset at the (Emigration Court) complex's unsightly largeness and are miffed that eight single-family homes were demolished to make way for the building."

This all goes against the very concepts that Envision Utah and other Smart Growth proponenets have been advocating for. The idea is that by building more transit, and allowing higher densities near transit stops, the demand for car travel will be reduced and communities will become more walkable and people-friendly. And the majority have said (through surveys and opinion polls) that they like these ideas.

Yeah, they like them as long as they happen somewhere else. Not in my backyard!

In all fairness, I too must say that I like many of the concepts put forward by Smart (Quality) Growth plans. There is a lot of merit in these ideas. But they will not be easily accepted, despite the fact that advocates think these are just the most common-sense, "good" principles. At risk of overusing my favorite analogy, it's like trying to turn an oil supertanker -- it takes a lot of time and space to make it happen. But eventually it does happen. It is starting to happen here.

Compare, for example, the Wasatch Front Regional Council's (made up primarily of local elected officials) current long range transportation plan with the version from 4-5 years ago. The plan calls for scads more transit now than previous plans. That is a big change.

Even in the newspaper stories above, people in elected positions are hanging tough for the quality growth principles.

"...District 4 City Councilwoman Nancy Saxton is on board with transit-oriented development," the DesNews story says. "While it may take some getting used to, higher densities should be welcome along transit lines, Saxton said. Emigration Court is difficult to take right now because it is the only large building in the area; but in time, people will like the project, she said."

And in the Trib story, Saxton said "...she is still discouraged at the request for more parking at Emigration Court. And she opposes eliminating the planned green space... . 'I've said (to city planners), you've got to hold the line. Don't find a lot of options for them."

We also need to recognize that for the near future at least, many of these quality growth ideas should be options for different ways to develop, not mandates that all new development should follow. If we go down the mandate path, we are likely to cut the throat of the smart growth approach. Steven Greenhut, senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County (California) Register, recently wrote on this when he commented on the Congress for New Urbanism conference held in Pasadena a few weeks ago.

Greenhut wrote, "To the degree New Urbanism (which he says is much the same thing as Smart Growth) is a design movement operating in the free market, I'm for it. ... To the degree New Urbanism is defined by subsidies, growth controls and a new regimen of government planning, I'm against it.

"By all means, let's remove the barriers to New Urbanism so developers can build these types of projects, but let's not create new barriers that make it harder to build the suburban houses needed to shelter the millions of new residents heading to (or being born in) America in the next 50 years."

Take a look at his piece, he has some thought-provoking ideas, some of which probably won't sit well with planners. But he's right, if we try to cut off all existing development types and force only Smart Growth concepts, we're likely to wind up with a rebellion, ala Measure 37 in Oregon.

Sit back, relax, take it easy, and be happy that progress is being made, albeit one step at a time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Same Old RDA Problem: More Economic Development Investment Tools Needed

A working group of local government officials put together by the Utah League of Cities and Towns has been meeting and discussing ideas about where to head with the state legislature on the RDA issue.

Much of the conversation has been about economic development as viewed by the state (high paying, high tech jobs to generate more income tax) and by the local communities (high retail sales volume to generate more local sales tax revenue). Most of this is a by-product of the state's tax system, where the main generator of revenue for local governments now is sales tax, whereas it is income and sales tax for state government.

RDAs have been squeezed to contort into shapes and tools not originally intended because of this changing tax structure over the years.

Rick Horst, South Jordan City manager, in a working paper he produced for the RDA group's consideration, wrote, "While manufacturing, high technology, or research and development create jobs and builds upon the 'income tax' base of the state, the minmal benefits derived via the local community is lost based on the demands for new infrastructure, maintenance of infrastructure and other public services such as public safety. Such offering does little to enhance the local communities effort to build upon the 'quality of life' and perhaps do more to diminish existing qualities."

What Rick seems to be pointing out here is that local communities need some "benefit" if they are to be asked to provide the infrastructure and services that business development requires. This goes back to the point I have made in earlier blog entries on this subject, that we need to craft a variety of tools to use for economic development at the local level to work in conjunction with a true redevelopment program. RDAs become just one of a variety of tools.

Lincoln Shurtz of the League summarized this discussion well in a draft of potential policies to be considered on the RDA issues. He wrote, in part, "The increased use of tax increment financing for an area's initial development is symptomatic of the lack of economic development tools that exist at the local government level. If additional, well crafted and narrowly tailored economic development tools are made available to local governments, the propensity to use redevelopment tools for initial economic development would wane."

Lincoln also summarized the issue by writing, "In the current national economic development environment, it is imperative for the State of Utah and local governments to create and use well crafted business incentives that are mutually beneficial to the well being of the state of Utah, all involved taxing entities, and the targeted businesses. Frequent cost-benefit analysis of these measures is imperative to their success."

I'm not talking about corporate welfare here, where we look to give "freebies" to business if they'll just land their facility here in Utah. I mean that we need well-crafted tools to help local governments invest in the infrastructure that is needed to make an area available for business development -- water and sewer lines, roads, power, telecommunications, etc. We do this for residential areas, often paid through impact fees. Business development generates substantial new tax revenue, we just have to have a way to build the infrastructure first and pay it off with the new tax revenue, to get those businesses to land here in the first place.

This is not a new problem. Back in 1991, when the state legislature was taking a hard look at RDAs and eventually made some modifications to allow for what is called the "economic development" track, then-president of the Utah RDA Association Blaine Gehring said, "Probably better than 50 percent of the economic development in the state of Utah is occurring with the assistance of redevelopment agencies. What these people and some legislators are saying is that there have been some problems with RDAs. But unless there is an alternative for economic development by cities and local governments, that's the only tool we have right now." (as quoted in a Deseret News story, January 16, 1991).

It's still the same problem.

One! Viewpoint Supporting Eminent Domain Ruling

Lo and behold, there is one voice out there in support of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on eminent domain. See the editorial in today's Standard Examiner.

Here's a viewpoint from a community trying to deal with some pretty hefty blight and deterioration issues, and what it takes to do something about it.

"We hope that as lawmakers review the court's decision and formulate plans for their 2006 session, they will recognize there are legitimate areas of blight in Ogden, and that whatever legislation is considered should make allowance for such reality," the ed writer says. "Ogden's trying to turn things around, and its efforts should not be hampered by lawmakers who cannot take the time to see for themselves what obstacles the city faces in its quest for revival."

Like I've said, over-the-top rhetoric does not serve anyone well on this issue. There are indeed situations where eminent domain may be useful, even necessary to carry out a community improvement. Utah legislators should carefully define what those situations are and make some allowances, not just throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Scourging Begins on Eminent Domain Ruling

Well, the fire and brimstone over the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on use of eminent domain for economic development purposes has begun -- see DesNews editorial, and column by George Will.

In concept, I agree that taking a person's property to turn over to someone else to make more money is not a good idea, and something that should not be done. But practical experience, at least here in Utah, seems to be that by and large (there are a few exceptions) local governments try to stay away from such actions if at all possible because of the concern over private property rights. I reviewed a number of RDA actions reported in the newspapers from 1988 on, and in most cases where eminent domain was talked about, it was never used, but the threat did bring some people to the table who might otherwise have delayed or killed substantial projects, like The Gateway, the Grand America Hotel, and numerous projects in smaller communities around the state from Provo and Orem to Sandy to South Salt Lake to Ogden.

While most of the retoric now seems to be what a great evil this is, many of these same folks also see the problems some holdouts can cause for worthy community revitalization projects. The big plus in the court ruling is the open invitation, so to speak, to state legislatures to define and limit this power, which is pretty much what the Utah legislature has done in the past.

It's never all black or white!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Lesson from Oregon Measure 37 -- Pay Attention to Public Sentiment!

Neil Lindberg recently passed along an interesting link to a piece written for the Land Use Law website at the Washington University School of Law, called "Paths Not Taken: Oregon's Response to Measure 37," by Ed Sullivan. Sullivan is a partner in a Portland law firm who specializes in local government and land use law.

Sullivan's piece confirms some of the things that I've heard, that Measure 37 came about in part because of the refusal of groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon and other pro-planning, pro-environment groups to even consider making minor changes (i.e., easing some provisions) to Oregon's land use laws.

Sullivan says that "the response of the planning and environmental communities to the passage of Measure 37...serves to explain how the measure passed in the first place. Living in righteous denial and discussing the future only with the like-minded, (they) are likely to wind up no better than as of November 2004... ." The piece then goes on to show how wrangling over peripheral issues has resulted in no well-formulated challenge to Measure 37 in either the courts or the legislature, and time to address land use claims is here.

Sullivan ends by saying, "Those reading the history of this part of Oregon's land use program may well ask what the executive branch and conservation groups were thinking in frustrating a legislative response and being so far behind in the courts. ... The Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association has long advocated a review of the State's land use system. More than half of today's Oregonians were either not born or in the state when that program was enacted in 1973. While it is unlikely Oregonians will repeal that program, they appear open to blandishments, clevely put forward through the use of anecdote, to change the program for the worse."

Perhaps our work here in Utah on SB60 was in part a "relief valve" to address concerns over Utah's land use laws that were being expressed by developers and land owners, and our willingness to do so allowed us to keep most of it, and in some ways even make it better. I know there were those in the planning community in Utah who were none too happy (and still aren't) that we would even agree to working on what became SB60. But what happened in Oregon with Measure 37 may serve as a good warning and lesson for us.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Let's Take All the Property!

Well, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the use of eminent domain by local government for economic development or, more accurately, redevelopment purposes, came out today. There are any number of media accounts -- take your pick, you can find something about it everywhere!

And by and large, it makes local government look like Simon LeGree, waiting in the wings to take the widow's property so they can give it to some big developer to make himself richer. My, how the media loves to play up the "dramatic" aspects of any news story -- guess they have to sell those newspapers and pump up those TV ratings!

My experience is that eminent domain is used very sparingly in such cases, only when it may be the last resort. Most government officials are aware of the negative public perception such actions produce and try to avoid it at all costs. But in legitimate redevelopment projects, you are usually dealing with a number of land owners. Often, most landowners are willing to sell and get out from under those blighted, low value properties, but one holdout can stymie what most everyone agrees is a good project. In such cases, just the threat of eminent domain can do wonders to make things come together. And often, landowners benefit from local government threatening eminent domain, to help them avoid capital gains tax issues.

In Utah, the legislature removed the power of eminent domain from the RDA law in the last legislative session, so the U.S. Supreme Court ruling has little effect, one way or the other. What it may mean, however, is that eminent domain is definitely on the table as the legislative tax reform task force looks at revamping the RDA law this summer. How will that play out? Stay tuned for a further discussion from me on where the RDA issue is going.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Citizens Want Collaborative Planning

At a meeting of the Wasatch Vision 2040 steering committee last week, Envision Utah staff unveiled preliminary results from a Dan Jones poll conducted this month, asking residents along the Wasatch Front a number of questions about growth and how to plan for it.

Among the results, I found it interesting that residents recognized the need and expressed strong support for collaborative planning among cities and counties (read: regional planning?).

Poll participants were asked to rate the importance of a number of factors on a 1-7 scale, with 1 being "not a priority at all" and 7 being a "high priority."

For the question, "How important is it that your local government cooperates with other cities or counties in the Wasatch Front region in addressing growth issues," the mean score was 6.32. Some 60% of the respondents rated it as a 7, another 20% as a 6. That's pretty high, though in a way, its one of those motherhood and apple pie questions -- who would really be against it?

In a later, related question, participants were asked, "When you think about quality growth, who do you believe can BEST implement the principles YOU favor?" 39% said, "city and county governments working together," the highest response. Local government garnered only a 9% response, state government also a 9%.

So, do Wasatch Front residents favor regional planning? Looks like they do, but it is never called regional planning. Instead, it seems that collaborative planning might be the better term for it, and it looks like it needs to be non-compulsory, that is, not another layer of mandatory government.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Whither Smart Growth?

This morning's Deseret News has a story about smart growth in Farmington. Nicole Warburton, who wrote the story, is one of the few local reporters I think does a good job, but this story is a little weak on what about the growth in Farmington makes it "smart."

Anyway, the story prompted me to think again about what "smart growth" is and if it is having any impact on the way we grow in Utah and around the country.

Randy Simmons, a good friend, USU professor and former city council member of Providence, Cache Valley, sent along a link to an interesting story in the PERC Reports magazine on what has happened with smart growth in some locations around the country. Randy is a PERC Board member.

PERC stands for Property and Environment Research Center, and bills itself as an organization dedicated to "free market environmentalism." While that seems to put them on the conservative side of land use planning issues, the PERC Report does a pretty good job in writing about some things that you may not hear much about anywhere else.

The story on smart growth recounts several things from around the country that I have heard about in traditional news media or planning publications, so it seems pretty credible.

The PERC story notes that smart growth has resulted in little change in the way property development takes place in Maryland, home of the smart growth movement; that Louden County, Virginia residents and elected officials are not supporting smart growth measures undertaken by previous elected officials; that micropolitan areas and exurbs are the fastest growing locations in the nation; and, of course, the Oregon land use debacle with the passage of Measure 37. It's an interesting and informative read. While it seems rather one-sided, it is factual and points out that smart growth is not that easy to get going or get accepted.

I personally think there are a lot of good ideas in the smart growth movement. But I have had heartburn with a couple of things about it, namely, that some proponents of smart growth seem to think that this "new" way of doing things will solve all our planning and land use woes (I tell you, at one conference Gary Uresk and I attended a couple of years ago, it was almost like a tent revival meeting -- everyone almost stood up and shouted "Hallelujah" as speakers talked of smart growth principles!), and that all new development should be done this way to save us from ourselves, and that people will like it better, trust us.

Well, as can be seen from the PERC story, it is not so easy to implement, is not universally loved by everyone, and likely will not solve all our problems as advertised.

Don't get me wrong, I think there are good ideas there, but it ain't the only way to do things, nor will it be accepted by everyone as the way to do things. Just keep it in perspective.

Monday, June 20, 2005

More on North Salt Lake Land War

The Deseret News ran a good story today about Mayor Kay Briggs of North Salt Lake, and his willingness to take on Mayor Rocky Anderson over the land on the bench in Salt Lake City, but owned by NSL. The story pretty well describes the Mayor Briggs I'm familiar with, having had my own run in with him over the Chevron-Texaco refinery, which is in unincorporated Davis County but which the mayor thought should be in NSL. It's a long story, but suffice it to say, I learned the mayor does not back down easily. I like the guy a lot, though. He speaks his mind, and there is no guile in him.

The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized this morning in favor of keeping the land undeveloped, but recognizing (as did the DesNews) that NSL is owed something. I've learned that the issue is pretty complex, that there is a lot of history to this property, and that both sides have valid points. What that tells me is there needs to be some careful discussion and negotiation. As I mentioned before, Ralph Becker seems to have a pretty good handle on the history of this, with his background on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission.

But Mayor Rocky did not help things at all with his rally last week, and Mayor Kay (as I've found out) is all too willing to give as good as he gets. So this is not a winning strategy. The Trib in its editorial says, "Anderson's decision to launch his plan with a needlessly hostile campaign rally was almost as needlessly in-your-face as Briggs' decision to crash the party and suggest his esteemed colleague was a liar. To bring this reasonable plan to the public's attention with a surreal media event...will only make it harder to settle the matter cordially."

Amen.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

"Rhetoric" Heats Up in North Salt Lake Land Fight

Mayor Rocky Anderson held a rally yesterday at Library Square in Salt Lake City to announce that he was going to start action to condemn and take by eminent domain a portion of the property on the bench above Beck Street, adjacent to and owned by North Salt Lake City. North Salt Lake City has been pushing for limited development of a portion of the site, while retaining the majority in open space, trails and recreation.

However, North Salt Lake Mayor Kay Briggs, no shrinking violet himself, attended the rally with some of his city council and planning commission members, to share their point of view. See stories in the DesNews and SL Trib. Also see my previous posting on this story, on June 9.

There are legitimate ideas on both sides of this issue, and the whole issue deserves thorough discussion. But it never ceases to amaze me how Mayor Rocky says he supports working together on one hand, and how he then does just about the most inflammatory thing he can to really charge people up on the other.

State Rep. Ralph Becker, a fellow planner and long-time friend, put it best in his comment to my June 9 post, when he said, "The legal and political issues are challenging. ... My own analysis does not lead to clear-cut legal conclusions -- both sides have merit.

"I remain hopeful that the cities will find a way to respect each other's perspective and find a solution. It is too simplistic to say it is a taking or that North Salt Lake has a right to develop this property. It is equally simplistic to say the NSL deserves no compensation beyond the value of this property as naturalized open space.

"It's time to tone down the rhetoric," Ralph goes on to say. "I hope for the sake of a regional benefit, a mutually agreed upon solution will be reached with the land preserved and NSL compensated reasonably."

Well, Ralph, sorry to say, it doesn't look like the rhetoric got a turn down on the dial yesterday by Mayor Rocky. And I think Mayor Kay will be willing to oblige, if that's the way he wants to play this out.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Utah Supreme Court Rules on SLAPP lawsuit

The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a ruling in a case where two South Jordan women claimed Anderson Development Co. filed a SLAPP suit against them to intimidate them and keep them from speaking out against a proposed development. See Salt Lake Trb story.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. A few years ago, several states adopted legislation prohibiting SLAPP suits, because of perceived efforts by developers to file lawsuits against citizen opponents to projects in an attempt to intimidate them and keep them from meddling in their development approval process. Utah was one of those states. See the First Amendment Center description of such suits.

While the court decision was a split one, the key issues regarding the SLAPP provisions appear to have been decided in favor of the citizens. The high court remanded back to district court the issue of whether to award damages to the two citizens in their SLAPP act counterclaim against Anderson Development. Douglas Parry, attorney for the two citizens, said, "The significance of the justices leaving in the SLAPP suit is to let everyone know you can't bully the little person anymore. It has to do with Constitutional rights."

However, Michael Hutchings, attorney for Anderson, said, "This is not a victory for them. We believe the Supreme Court has clarified the law." Anderson added the developer continues to be open to a settlement.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Transform RDA Law into Variety of Local Incentives

The state legislature's Tax Reform Task Force subcommittee on RDAs meets again this Thursday to continue its deliberations on how to reform Utah's RDA law.

A group of local government officials has been meeting to work out among themselves some recommendations on what to consider. Lincoln Shurtz, of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, has summarized some of the concepts this group last talked about.

Among them:

"In the current national economic development environment, it is imperative for the State of Utah and local governments to create and use well crafted business incentives that are mutually beneficial to the well being of the state, all involved taxing entities, and the targeted businesses."

One I particularly feel strongly about, is "The increased use of tax increment financing for an area's initial development is symptomatic of the lack of economic development tools that exist at the local government level. If additional, well crafted and narrowly tailored economic development tools are made available to local governments, the propensity to use redevelopment tools for initial economic development would wane."

In particular, I think we should be looking at a variety of sources of the funds for these incentives, not just property tax, but also sales tax, income tax, business taxes, and so on. By relying solely on property tax, entities like school districts and special service districts put up the tax dollars for the incentives, and don't see any of the benefits from other tax sources they do not generally benefit from directly.

The local government group will be meeting again next week to further refine these and other proposals.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Measure 37 in Utah?

A story in yesterday's Oregonian details how the proponents of Oregon's Measure 37 are in demand, travelling and talking to those in several other states who are pushing for similar measure in their home areas -- see OregonLive.com's Printer-Friendly Page

The story says, "they're the new hope for America's property rights advocates and the inspiration for a nationwide movement to scale back land restrictions.

"if planning rules buckle here, both sides reason, they can be changed anywhere.

"A large coalition is challenging Washington state's Growth Management Act. A Maine supermarket heiress wants to loosen planning rules in her town. Floridians may try to bolster their property rights law with a Measure 37 replica."

Measure 37, if you don't remember, requires state and local governments in Oregon to either allow development on land that was allowable at the time the land was purchased by the current owner, or pay the owners compensation for the difference in land value. It was passed by Oregon voters in the November general election by 61%. See this realtor's website for a good explanation of Measure 37.

"A property rights initiative modeled after Measure 37 is headed for Washington's ballot, probably in 2006. Ditto for North Carolina, South Carolina, Colorado, Napa County, California, and Falmouth Maine. Rumblings are underway in Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin."

So will we see Measure 37 efforts in Utah? So far, I haven't heard any "rumblings," but given the recent fervor for ballot initiatives in Utah, something may be coming soon. Watch the horizon for signs!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Can They Do That?

The debate on-going in recent weeks between Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake over the development of bench property has been an interesting item. The issue involves 100 acres of land just south of the Eaglewood Golf Course in North Salt Lake, on a beautiful high bench created by Lake Bonneville. The land is owned by the City of North Salt Lake. 20 of those acres are in North Salt Lake, but the remaining 80 acres lies across the county line and in the incorporated boundaries of Salt Lake City. Reportedly, developers are interested in continuing residential development south onto the property, and North Salt Lake is willing to sell so they can use the money for other needs.

Before any of this can happen, however, Salt Lake City needs to either allow the development to proceed under their jurisdiction, or allow the property to deannex and be annexed into North Salt Lake. A number of area residents on both sides of the county line are decrying the imminent loss of what they call a wonderful natural area where people love to hike and take walks.

North Salt Lake officials have countered with a proposal that would develop only about 20 acres of the site for residential, use part of the property for a city cemetary, and leave about 50 acres in its natural state.

After considerable back and forth, Salt Lake City took the extreme action of denying the request for deannexation, and then zoning the property for "Natural Open Space." See DesNews story for a recap of that action.

The issue is kicking up a lot of emotion. The Deseret News editorialized in favor of keeping the property undeveloped, with the caveat that the land should be sold to Salt Lake City "so it can preserve it as open space." This makes a good point, as North Salt Lake mayor Kay Briggs has said the rezone to natural open space would be an unconstitutional "taking" of property.

And I must say, I'm inclined to agree with the mayor. Personally, I'm kind of partial to the idea of keeping the area natural and undeveloped, because I love to tramp around in the foothills. But for a city to zone private property (and make no mistake -- this is private property, even though it is owned by a public entity -- it could easily be sold for private development at a considerable price) to a category where it can only be used for "Open Space," smacks of not giving heed to all those warnings we get from attorneys and the courts when we enact zoning regulations, that we must leave some "viable economic use" of the property if we are to avoid takings claims. If we want to keep property like this for benefit of the public, then we should in all likelihood be buying it, not just zoning it for our benefit.

I don't know the details of the zone that Salt Lake City staff will be creating for this property, but I find it hard to believe that it will pass legal muster if it prevents all development on the property.

And the debate between residents on what should happen to this property is an interesting story in itself. Stan Porter, the North Salt Lake Planning Commission chair, critcized the mayor and council for not using the planning commission for recommendations on what should happen to the property. "It would go better if we had public support" for what the mayor is proposing, Porter said. "We don't know what the public support is."

A number of North Salt Lake residents have spoken at meetings in both cities, saying they would prefer to see the land remain undeveloped.

Conversely, some residents have stated they do not have a problem with continued development of the hillside bench. In a letter to the editor, George Lawrence of North Salt Lake said, "What about all those newcomers who aspire to move up to the foothills? Do they not also deserve the opportunity?"

One problem that has not been talked about is if the land is developed as North Salt Lake proposes as part of North Salt Lake City, there will be a portion that will be across the county line in Salt Lake County. This can cause all kinds of weird problems, like residents whose children are actually in the Salt Lake City School District rather than in the Davis District, and having to vote in Salt Lake County elections and special districts, when for all practical purposes they have nothing to do with Salt Lake County.

This same situation faced the developers of South Mountain in Draper, where neighborhoods were divided by the Salt Lake-Utah County line. Changes were made in the state code and even in the state constitution to try and address this problem, which was somewhat successful. But North Salt Lake's property extends more than 1,000 feet south of the county line into Salt Lake County, so at least a portion will have to remain in Salt Lake County, while in every other way those residents would be part of North Salt Lake City. One of those little quirks that can become big problems.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Why Think Regionally? Because We Are a Region!

Chuck Chappell, Executive Director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council and a good friend, recently sent over an opinion piece from the Puget Sound Business Journal detailing how the Seattle metro area is working on a regional economic development initiative.

Glenn Pascall, a Seattle-based economic and public policy consultant, writes, "Led by the Puget Sound Regional Council and involving a host of corporations and public agencies, the Prosperity Partnership's goal is a paradigm shift that replaces luck with strategy as the guardian of our economic fortunes. ... (T)he partnership proposes to switch the emphasis from individual companies to a unified region.

"The Partnership put the case simply: The world has changed, we must understand these changes and we must act as a region. ... (T)he Central Puget Sound metropolis is a single economic unit. Our region must respond as one to this new environment and change the way we do business.

"Many issues clamor for attention. Several factors are pervasive: transportation capacity, educational adequacy, housing affordability, power reliability, regulatory functionality. Then there are high-end elements such as R&D clusters, research universities, cultural amenities, and residential quality."

Reading this piece caused me to realize I haven't blogged yet about one of my most passionate beliefs -- that we must find a way here along the Wasatch Front to understand and act better as a region, if we hope to continue our fine quality of life and stay competitive in today's global economy.

In several other states, regional perspectives and initiatives have been encouraged and facilitated by empowering regional groups and strategies. Several immediately come to mind, such as San Diego, Puget Sound, Denver, Portland, Minneapolis, St. Louis. In Utah, we're not there yet.

Some things are helping us get there. We are taking a broader view of planning and funding our metro transportation system (though the legislature seems to be slow to catch on to this concept). But in areas like economic development and business leadership, where much could be done, not much is happening.

Even among our local elected officials, a few are catching on, but not most. As I wrote a couple of years ago in an opinion piece, "It is our metro areas that produce the economic well being of this country and of the world, and it is the metro areas that must find ways to deal with their problems and keep themselves competitive as desireable places to live and work."

The National Civic League warned in 1989 that "life in urban and suburban America...will decline seriously if the 'big' governance issues, from education to social services to land use patterns...are not guided and ultimately directed on a regionwide basis."

I'm not arguing in favor of a regional government per se, but we do need to find ways to work cooperatively on a regional level to address some of these issues. Gone are the days when each community and business was an island unto itself. We are now one big region, stretching from Tremonton to Nephi, and we need to find ways to work together on issues.

More to come on this topic