Tuesday, January 31, 2006

It's All About Developer, Not Property, Rights

Stories in the local papers this morning that reflect a powerful push toward certain development-oriented interests.

The DesNews has a story about yesterday's meeting of the League of Cities and Towns and their conclusion that there cannot be an accomodation with those pushing SB170 during the session. Last week's meeting with the proponents of the bill ended with an understanding that there were several issues where agreement between the groups might be reached, but that it just could not be done properly during the legislative session because of the pressure that is always inherent at such a time, and because time will be needed to bring all interested parties to the table to air all concerns and develop a good product. Such an approach was taken with last year's LUDMA rewrite bill, SB60. Not everyone was completely happy with the outcome of that effort, but generally everyone (including those from the development community, we thought) felt it was a worthwhile and good process.

SB170 is touted as being about property rights. I think you can say it is, but for really only one class of property rights -- those of the developer. The rights of property owners around or near a proposed development, under this bill, are severely cutailed. The bill takes a pretty direct shot at the ability of local government to balance the interests of various groups and property owners.

But the proponents of the bill now say that the bill is being rewritten. What was the purpose of the bill in its original form, then? "There's not a thing is this bill that is not merited," said realtor lobbyist Chris Kyler. Yet in the next line, he says, "We anticipate once the bill is rewritten, it will have no practical application or impact in cities that are already treating current and future landowners fairly." Forgive me if I don't exactly trust what you will come up with, Chris, given what the first bill looked like. What landowners are we talking about treating fairly -- all landowners, or only those proposing new development?

Repeatedly, proponents of SB170 have said the original bill was intended as a "wake-up call" to those local governments who are not abiding by the current rules and abusing the process. If that is the case, why not bring those abuses forward, get all the facts out on the table (could it be that some developers are not following the rules, either?), and work through to correct the abuses? This is not a process, however, that lends itself to a reasoned conclusion in the heat of a 6 week legislative session.

Another interesting twist in this overall theme is the on-going dispute in Bluffdale over the development of a large portion of that city's land area, reported this morning in both the Trib and the DesNews. The hearing on the disconnection petition started yesterday, and again to some extent frames the issue of developer rights vs. the rights of the rest of the property owners in the community. There certainly are issues about how those interests are expressed-- through lawsuits on one side and referendum petitions on the other, which muddle the process that the local officials find themselves in the middle of.

Lots of exciting stuff in watch over the next few weeks.

Monday, January 30, 2006

To Suburb, or Not To Suburb

OK, time for a little break from the heavy legislative scene, and get a little brain-fare out to divert thinking for a bit.

Two polar opposites on the topic of growth, suburbs, sprawl, and so on, from two different writers a half a world apart.

The first is an excerpt from an upcoming book by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, called The Place You Love Is Gone, Progress Took It Away, published in January by Norton Press.

Pierson writes, "there is only a sense that these things are gone never to return. ... We won't speak of the fact that you will never again be able to visit the lovely beach of your childhood, because you can't get near it. ... Perhaps the only thing that can be grasped by any one of us is the sight of bulldozers just down the lane, grading the former hay meadow and giving rise to a dream vision of thirty-seven new taupe vinyl-sided 'homes' with white trim and yawning bays for several cars. Then we might see the future. It is composed of permanent mourning and unhappy accomodation. Once upon a time, only the king could place his fortifications on the highest ridge; now any king who owns an SUV can do the same."

In contrast, Bernard Salt, a partner with KPMG in Sydney, Australia, writes in a column in The Australian, "I have thought about this long and hard all summer. Should I disclose what I am about to disclose or should I continue to cover it up? ... I am of course talking about the heretics, the miscreants and the deviants who, like me, 'quite like suburbia.' There, it's out there. I am a 'suburbanist.' I confess to being a lover of suburbia and I refuse to be ashamed of how I feel.

"Inside Australia's most favoured form of residential dwelling live ordinary families: a father, a mother and two children. In some cases the families might be blended. But in all cases I imagine both parents working outside the family home. They have two cars. They don't use public transport. They don't travel into the CBD. The don't attend high-brow cultural events and festivals. But they do have a broad range of friends and family who live similar lives in nearby suburbs."

So take your pick. Who are we planning for? Who should we be planning for? Can we plan for both? Are they mutually exclusive, or is there room for all? Something fun to spend a little time thinking about.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Who Started the Fire?

Another story in today's DesNews (this issue is getting a pretty good dose of media coverage) about the potential consequences of SB170.

The story quotes Chris Kyler, a lobbyist for the Utah Association of Realtors, saying the bill is simply intended to force cities to abide by their statutes rather than allowing planners and other staff members to arbitrarily deny or change development applications.

"There have been some people within the ranks of the League of Cities and Towns who have taken SB170, and they have misapplied it, and they have thrown gasoline on a fire which didn't need to be there. They're saying the bill does more than it actually does. In fact, they're claiming it does 10 times more things than it actually does."

I know Chris, and have respected and appreciated work we have done together in the past on other planning-related issues, most notably on the extensive rewrite of LUDMA last year with Sen. Greg Bell's SB60. But on this one, I think Chris is barking up the wrong tree.

I think Chris is engaging in a bit of damage control, or trying to lower expectations. It's interesting that he accuses those of us opposing SB170 of exaggeration and throwing "gasoline on a fire which didn't need to be there." They are the ones who dropped it on us without any real warning or opportunity to react before it went public. What kind of reaction would they expect? "Oh, we know you didn't really mean it?"

All one really has to do is read what the bill says. "Each change in the designation of zoning district shall conform as reasonably as practicable to the request of the property owner whose property is affected by the change (Line 661)." "A parcel of property may not be given a zoning designation that would materially diminish the reasonable investment-backed expectations of the property's owner... . If a change in the zoning designation applicable to a parcel of property makes the intensity of the permitted use of that property substantially different than the intensity of permitted uses on property in the same vicinity, the change may not be approved unless the differences in intensity of permitted uses is attributable to differences in topography or other natural features, or there are countervailing, compelling public interests in favor of the change in zoning designation(lines 614-625)." That last is a very high legal standard.

In lines 590-597, on what the community general plan may provide for, "aesthetics" and "the reduction of the waste of physical, financial, or human resources that result from either excessive congestion or excessive scattering of population" is striken.

And then, of course, line 1054, "Each officer (elected officials, planning commissioners) or employee (planners) of a municipality who violates a provision of the municipality's land use ordinances or this chapter is guilty of a class B misdemeanor."

There are a number of other examples in the bill I could cite. But the League is the one pouring gasoline on the flames? How? By just citing what is in the very public version of the bill?

Now in all fairness to Chris and his associates, they have met with local government representatives and stated that there are portions of the bill they did not really intend to be passed, that they were included to "get the attention" of those local governments that are violating the code as it exists. And I will agree, there are certain jurisdictions out there that are either violating the code or abusing the process. But why not talk with us about this first, and let us help get the problems solved? I don't think we can be blamed for making this a much more "public" reaction, there are many individuals out there who can read for themselves perfectly well, and have, and are reacting.

I don't know where the discussions that have started on this are going to wind up. But at least we are talking, and hopefully we can come to some resolutions.

Friday, January 27, 2006

News on SB170

Just some quick references to recent news stories about SB170. One in this morning's DesNews, and in yesterday's Salt Lake Trib. The Trib also has an editorial, and Val Bagley also has a cartoon on it. The Davis County Clipper has a story and an editorial.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Approving a Regional Facility

A couple of years ago, we worked closely with Rep. Ralph Becker and Rep. Greg Hughes on a bill addressing Facilities of Regional Significance. The bill was prompted by the dispute between Draper City and Metro Water District over the location of a large water treatment facility where the water district said it was by far the best and most efficient site to serve a wide area of the south valley. Draper City, however, said they had been planning on the site being a commercial area critical to the financial viability of their community.

The issue was eventually brought to the state legislature, with a threat of a bill to exempt regional water treatment facilities from local land use regulation.

To avoid such problems in the future, Reps. Becker and Hughes proposed a bill that would require better planning coordination between local governments and entities that plan and build "regional facilities" that serve more than one jurisdiction. That part was eventually passed.

The second part of the proposed bill was to set up a sort of "mediation panel" that would hear and decide on any future disputes like the Draper City - Metro Water controversy. That part was nixed, as cities and counties said they did not want to give up any of their land use authority to another unelected body.

Yesterday the West Jordan City Council accepted a Utah Power substation in a neighborhood which it had been fighting for some time. See stories in the Trib and DesNews. Apparently the city council decided to back off after the Electrical Facility Review Board decided in favor of Utah Power on the siting of the substation.

Who knew that such a tool already existed, when we were debating the issue in the Facilities of Regional Significance bill back when? I sure didn't.

Apparently the provision in the state code to set up the board came about following a dispute in the 90's, when Sandy City wanted Utah Power to bury all its new transmission lines. Utah Power objected because of the cost. Again, aspects of the dispute made their way up to the state legislature, and this was one of the things that came from it.

The provisions for the Board are found in the Title 54 Chapter 14 of the state code. It established an Electrical Facility Review Board, composed of the three members of the Public Utility Commission, and two representatives appointed by the governor, nominated by the League of Cities and Towns and Utah Association of Counties. The purpose of the Board is to resolve disputes between local governments and electrical utilities over the siting of facilities.

"If the board decides that a facility should be constructed that the local government has prohibited, the local government shall, within 60 days following the decision of the board, issue the permit, authorization, approval, exception, or waiver consistent with the decision of the board."

Wow. So such a board has existed all along (just for electrical utilities, however) and I'll bet most of us didn't even know. I guess West Jordan knows it, at least now. Judging from the clips I saw on the TV news last night, I don't think it will be easy to convince anyone that a similar process should be established for other types of regional facilities.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Comments Roll In on SB170

In my other life, as I work to coordinate legislative information for Utah APA, I have been getting more comments on SB170 than I have ever gotten for any legislative issue.

The Salt Lake Trib carried a story on the bill this morning, which was pretty accurate (not completely, but close enough). Jacob Santini, the reporter who wrote the story, called me this afternoon on follow-up, and we talked at length about the impact the bill would likely have on the future of planning and land use regulation in Utah communities. Essentially, we talked about how the bill would put almost all the presumption of validity with the landowner who was making the application. Landowners adjacent or nearby would have much more limited say over the proposal of the applying landowner. I told Jacob that generally, local governments have been cast in the role of balancing private property rights (those of the applying landowner) against those of the community (all the other landowners). This bill, I think, would change that.

Some of the more interesting comments sent in:

Mike Hyde, Duchesne County Community Development Administrator, said "Limiting legislative decisions to those listed (in the bill) will benefit developers and hurt citizens in the planning process. Local government would have to develop and adhere to clear and objective criteria for most rezone requests, which limits the legislative [role] of local officials who were elected to make such decisions."

Jim McGuire, Washington City planner, wrote "...what caught my attention was the minimal amount of information being proposed for a preliminary plat. In our area and probably many of your areas, the easy available lands are gone. The more difficult lands are the ones in which we need more information (e.g., slope analysis, geotechnical report, flood study, hazard assessment, traffic impact study, etc.). Even if the lands aren't difficult to develop we need as much information as possible to make good decisions because once the preliminary plat is approved the vesting is in place."

Cory Snyder, Centerville City planner, said "I am concerned about (the bill) turning the rezone process into an administrative decision. I thought I had problems here in Centerville when Wal-Mart applied for a conditional use permit. It now appears that unless the rezone equates to more than 25% of the area of the city, all rezone applications must be approved by the local authority even when considering technical evidence, specifically if it can also be debated by other experts. That essentially allows any petitioner to purchase an argument to force an approval. Thus any development can just simply roll-on-in...so expect any kind of development in any zone."

Nick Norris of Taylorsville, wrote "It seems to me that this bill would take away from local governement the power to determine what kind of communities they want to be, from requiring minimal info on preliminary subdivision plats to what can be included in a general plan. It also seems to eliminate any need for any kind of zoning, (as the bill) states that the land use authority MUST adopt changes that conform to the LANDOWNER'S request...which deals with intensity of uses and other similar uses in the "vicinity," whatever that means."

And finally, Vaughn Pickell, an attorney with Smith Hartvigsen in Salt Lake, said "There seems to be nothing good or redeeming about the bill. The bill would be a drastic departure from the newly revised LUDMA from last year. It even provides criminal penalties for city employees or officials who may violate LUDMA or local land use ordinances. Imagine the chilling effect it could have on citizen participation on local boards, commissions, and councils... .

"Other particularly odious provisions include that a legislative body must consider the request of the land owner and adopt changes that conform to the landowner's requests as closely as possible. This would virtually eliminate zoning because a legislative body would in most cases have to grant the request. This would alter the zoning map and general plan on an ad hoc basis.

"The bill would also remove aesthetics from the list of considerations to be included in preparing the general plan. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that aesthetics are a good and permissible consideration for local land use decisions. See Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26, 33 (1954) ("The concept of public welfare is broad and inclusive... . The values it represents are spiritual as well as physical, aesthetic as well as monetary. It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled.")"

Keep those comments coming, folks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

More on SB170

Lots of comments rolling in on SB170. Some of the more outragous provisions:

Eliminates the ability of a county or municipality to enact stricter requirements for any section of the land use statute. In other words, what's in the code is it -- nothing more, nothing less.

Requires local governments to designate a streamlined process for routine land use matters. Currently this is an option, not a requirement.

Removes aesthetics from the list of considerations that may be included in preparation of the general plan, as well as issues related to congestion, and to sprawl.

Eliminates the provision that a general plan may consider regulation of the use of land on hillsides.

Limits legislative acts to only three: enacting the general plan; enacting a zoning map for the entire jurisdiction; and a comprehensive rezone affecting at least 25% of the land area of the jurisdiction. All other land use decisions would become administrative acts.

Provides that when zoning issues are considered, the legislative body must consider the request of the landowners and adopt changes that conform to the landowner's request as closely as practicable.

Limits what applications for preliminary subdivision plat approval must include -- the bill gets specific about the items to be submitted and reviewed.

Prohibits denail of an application on technical or scientific grounds if the applicant provides expert testimony to support approval and there is no equivalent expert testimony to support disapproval.

The list goes on and on. Thanks to Craig Call, state private property ombudsman, for his very thorough listing of all the effects of the bill.

The bill, if passed, would pretty much make Pottersvilles (or Mansellvilles, if you please) out of most communities in the state, I think.

Coming up, I'll run down some of the comments I've received on this bill.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Developers' Planning Act

The big, anticipated "anti-planning" bill in the state legislature is out, and boy is it a doozy. It is SB170 - Local Government Land Use and Impact Fee Revisions, sponsored by Sen. Mansell.

It is pretty remarkable how bald-faced and blatant it is in skewing the entire planning and local land use regulation process towards the developer. For example, the bill would "prohibit counties and municipalities from giving property a zoning designation that materially diminishes the reasonable investment-backed expectations of the owner... ." Such a provision would make it virtually impossible to down-zone or change to a less-lucrative zone that what may be in place currently. Along those same lines, the bill would "limit zone changes that make the intensity of permitted uses substantially less than that of property in the same vicinity." What does "vicinity" mean? Next door? A mile away? Again, virtually assures that there would be almost no down-zoning that could be done.

A provision of the bill with far-reaching implications would be the requirement "that all actions under land use statutes, other than specified legislative body enactments, shall be considered to be administrative in nature." This would include any rezone that encompasses less than 25% of the total land area of the municipality. When is the last time you heard of a city zoning more than 25% of its land area in one action? Right -- this would mean virtually all rezones. As an administrative act, the governing body would be obligated to grant the rezone request if it complied with the requirements set out in your plans and regulations -- no discretion on the part of the legislative body allowed.

There are so many provisions that it is difficult to enumerate them all here in this one blog entry. Changes in what are considered to be non-conforming uses, changes in the standards for granting variances, changes in the appeal process, a requirement that land use applications must be approved within 28 days of submittal or else they are automatically deemed approved.

More important, I think, is something that Gary Uresk articulated in a meeting earlier today. Gary said that the process by which this bill was created is so clearly the antithesis of what was done with SB60 last year. Actually, for the last two years, local government officials worked with legislators, developers, real estate interests, planners, and many others to craft some significant changes to the Land Use Development and Management Act, including a number which were things the developers wanted to see in the code. The process was collaborative, open, and one which everyone felt pretty good about in the end (though there were certainly plenty of frustrations along the way). Part of the discussion was that these changes would take some time to work their way into the psyche of local governments statewide, and in the meantime there should be no more significant changes to allow things to sink in and start working (with one notable exception -- the subdivisions part of the LUDMA had some issues that were put off, to be addressed by a similar process in the coming year).

Contrast that with how SB170 has been developed -- a small segment of the development community in collaboration with a law firm which represents them to draft the legislation, with virtually no input from local government, citizens, or many of the other interests that were part of the SB60 process. A sneak preview of the bill was given a couple of months ago to a few municipal representatives, then pulled back in for "secret" modifications, and now revealed to us in all its glory. What a sham of a process. This is not collaborative law-making at its best, it is representation of one interest with powerful legislative connections.

Post your comments, please, there is much to be done in a short time. There will be more blogs on the details coming up.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Integrity of Community Planning

Following a meeting of the Wasatch Front's Regional Growth Committee last week, I had the chance to talk for a while with new Bluffdale mayor Claudia Anderson. Regardless of how you may feel about her ideas for the future growth and development of Bluffdale, you certainly can't argue with her passion over the issue and her willingness to step into the fray.

One of the things we talked about briefly is the upcoming court hearing on the petition for disconnection by several large landowners who are unhappy with the city's plans for future development of their area. Mayor Anderson recognizes there are those who may not be pleased with what the city currently has in its general plan for the area, but questions the "rightness" of allowing landowners to disconnect and move on to another community where they think they may get better treatment. She feels that every city in the state ought to be concerned about the upcoming court hearing and what it may do to the ability of communities to plan for their futures if landowners can simply pick up and go somewhere else, so to speak.

I must say, I have to agree with her on that point. Planning seems to be coming under substantial fire again in recent weeks from those who feel that it robs property owners of basic rights. The upcoming "death to planning" bill in the state legislature purportedly will address such things as requiring that landowners be notified and involved in any plan developments (I thought that was already the law?), and that they be guaranteed some kind of minimum zoning level to allow for reasonable development (how do you write a law for that?). Over on a fellow blogger's site recently (Weber County Forum), there was an amazing debate by commenters on the "evils" of planning (prompted initially by opposition to Ogden City's redevelopment plans).

There has always been a tension between community planning and property owner rights and desires to do what they want with their land. This is not a bad thing -- we have all seen what can happen when government (ala the collective voice of the citizens) goes too far in imposing its will on individuals.

But by the same token, when individuals in a community are able to do whatever they want whenever they want, others can be damaged and hurt. Planning over the years has been about helping to balance those two tensions.

So in the Bluffdale disconnection case, if property owners don't like what the community plans for their area, if they can simply move on to another community, does this serve anyone well except the individual property owner? Almost by human nature, large property owners will want to maximize the value they can get out of their land by allowing unfettered development (but smaller property owners, like homeowners, see greater benefit in very strict regulation so that nothing but similar homes are built on neighboring property). The very "integrity" of community planning is threatened if owners are allowed to switch communities simply because they don't like the plan. The better question would be is whether the community plan allows for "reasonable" use and development.

The Utah code on disconnections of property is pretty vague. It says, in part, "In determining whether petitioners have met their burden of proof..., the court shall consider all relevant factors, including the effect of the proposed disconnection on: the municipality or community as a whole; adjoining property owners; existing or projected streets or public ways; water mains and water services; sewer mains and sewer services; law enforcement; zoning; and other municipal services."

Much will depend on the interpretation of the language by the courts. Local governments indeed should be concerned about the Bluffdale case, whether you agree with the city's plan or not.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A "War" Against Suburbia?

Many of you will note that I have been somewhat of an advocate of the writings and positions of Joel Kotkin (New Suburbanism) in some of my previous blog entries. Although as I have analyzed what Kotkin is saying and what New Urbanists say, I am coming more and more to the conclusion that there is not a lot of difference between the basic principles of the two, and it doesn't really matter what we call it, so long as we work towards improving the character of all that new development on the suburban fringe.

Kotkin's latest commentary published in the Wall Street Journal, however, while still very much "on target", seems a little over the top in places. Titled "The War Against Suburbia," he presents some valid criticisms of many planners today, but maybe over-generalizes just a bit.

Kotkin is still right in that the preponderance of people seem to want that single-family house with a yard and a car in the suburbs, and that many urban commentators and planners seem to focus more on high density living near the urban core, which has a real but rather limited market appeal.

But to suggest that "Acolytes of such worldviews in our City Halls are now working overtime to find ways to snuff out 'sprawl' in favor of high-density living," while having a grain of truth, may be a bit too pessimistic.

What think ye, readers? Is Kotkin right?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Quick Notes on Legislation, Disconnection

Just a couple of quick references on some interesting stories I've followed and blogged on in the past.

The first is about the upcoming court hearing on the disconnection of a considerable amount of land from Bluffdale because the owners don't like how the city is treating them. Whether you agree or not with how the city has approached the planning for this area, it raises the bigger question in my mind of whether landowners can simply pick up their marbles and move over to somewhere they think they can get a better deal if they don't agree with the first city's proposed plans. Maybe the property owners have a point, but what a can of worms such an action could open... .

The second is a brief preview by the Trib of hot issues for municipalities in the upcoming legislative session. RDAs is certainly one of them, but more interesting is the possible bill that would change the presumption of validity for land use. I can't think of another state in the nation that approaches land use this way. While this type of bill may not be very likely to pass, it will still require considerable energy on the part of planners and local government officials to combat, and may cause us to settle for a "less onerous" proposal down the road. Watch out on this one.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

New Urbanism Debated

Pretty good discussion about what New Urbanism is and how it works (or should work) in rapidly growing communities on the blog The Naked City, by Mary Newsome. Newsome is an associate editor of the Charlotte (NC) Observer who writes frequently on urban growth topics.

The blog entry begins with a discussion about a NU development on the fringes of the Charlotte suburbs, which reminds me a lot of Daybreak. Newsome's entry lays out some good thoughts, like the fact that New Urbanist principles of mixed-use and walkablitity should be included in suburban developments as well. One of the commenters says what I've been thinking for some time, "How can something several miles outside a city center be called 'new urbanism?' Shouldn't those developments be called 'new suburbanism?' It would be much more accurate, but alas, not have the same panache..."

It doesn't really matter what you call it, it's the ideas that are important. Be sure to read all the comments, there's lots of good back and forth about new urbanism (or suburbanism, if you will). The discussion is about everything from whether NU is "elitist" to whether density and diminishing oil are just red herrings (sorry, Google Peak Oil).

Worth a read. It's my opinion that at the rate we are growing, there is some infill and redevelopment we can do, but the vast majority of new development will be out on the urban fringes. We should do what we can to make that new fringe development the best, most walkable, mixed-use, employment mixed that we can.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

It's That Time of Year!

Well, the state legislative session is less than a week from beginning, and all manner of "interesting" things begin to pop up.

On the planning agenda, you may recall that last year was the culmination of an extensive, 2-year effort to revise and update the LUDMA. Much of this revision was driven by the development and real-estate community, who wanted, among other things, to see existing case law codified so that all would be readily aware of the rules we should all be playing by.

Part of the understanding was that with these extensive changes, the LUDMA would then be left alone for awhile, to give things time to settle down and play out. Most everyone on all sides seemed agreed to this.

Then, along comes House Speaker Greg Curtis and Rep. Wayne Harper, a former city community development director, with their threats to turn planning and zoning on its head (see October DesNews story). Apparently, much of this is due to Rep. Curtis' dissatisfaction with local planning procedures, particularly because of the way some issues have played out into zoning referenda (and his law firm represents some developers who are caught up in these imbroglios). Hence, the threats to change things.

What we didn't know was how much was just talk, and how much might actually come about.

Well, apparently much is coming about. I have learned that there has been a draft bill produced, for Sen. Al Mansell, that would do much of what Reps. Curtis and Harper talked about in October. The draft bill was shared with only a few people from local government, then pulled back to make more changes, and subsequent work has not been shared.

Also, there has apparently been substantial discussion and debate about defining through legislative action that much of what is done in the land use arena is declared to be "administrative," thus making those items not subject to referendum. Such an action is a two-edged sword, however, as has been discussed in some previous posts on this blog.

Additionally, impact fees are coming under scrutiny again, as a legislative audit is underway, looking at how such fees have been applied and what they are used for. The implication is that there are improper actions taking place with these fees, hence the authority of local government to impose should be rolled back.

So wake up, planners and local government elected officials, the assualt is apparently coming. Vigilant action will be needed on your part to make sure legislators are aware of all the impliccations of what is being proposed.

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Regional Cooperation Showing Signs of Life

I attended a meeting yesterday sponsored jointly by the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Mountainlands Association of Governments where several legislators met with local officials to discuss transportation. The legislators presented various plans they have for transportation for the upcoming legislative session.

While there wasn't much new information presented by the legislators, it was good to see what they are specifically proposing, and then for local elected officials to respond back to the legislators. Probably most interesting was the general messge from the local officials that legislators should reconsider making any big tax cuts and instead use the money to fund the backlog of capital needs, particularly transportation improvements. This would not build on-going expenses into the budget for staffing and programs, but would chip away at all those projects that are planned but not funded.

But of greater significance to me was that the meeting showed a greater level of region-wide cooperation among local officials. To have mayors and county commissioners from North Ogden to Payson together in one place, to advocate for a plan they had jointly agreed upon, was something great to see. This is how we will best solve our future urban issues, and we must see more of this.

On the negative side, transit still seems to be kind of an afterthought with legislators. They acknowledge it, but I'm not sure they really see it as part of the solution to transportation problems. In part, that may be due to the structure of the UTA, with it being primarily associated with local government, with funding coming from local-option sales tax. Somehow, we need to give the state a better stake in seeing transit work.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Planners, Seize the Day!

How can planners think they are not important in the overall scheme of things when we keep getting opportunities thrown right into our laps?

On Sunday, New Year's Day, the DesNews put forward its important editorial priorities for the coming year, and right at the top of the list was...dealing with growth!

"(T)he Deseret Morning News editorial board has chosen the challenge of dealing with the many facets of growth as the top editorial goal for 2006. This means putting pressure on local officials to plan intelligently, so that new developments don't overrun the need for parks and open spaces. It also means finding ways to intelligently deal with needs in education, transportation, and other areas."

I would add "... and keep state officials from hampering local officials from doing so." This in reference to the none-too-secret expressions by House Speaker Greg Curtis and Rep. Wayne Harper (former West Jordan Community Development Director, no less) of their desire to essentially turn local land use regulation on its head (see past news story.)

Planners, as those trained and equipped to deal with handling growth, we cannot let such opportunity pass us by to be in the forefront of the policy discussions.

One who is certainly "seizing the day" is our own Soren Simonsen. A good story in the Trib about Soren's assumption of a seat on the Salt Lake City Council shows how planners can even make themselves into elected policymakers (along with that other notable planner, Ralph Becker). Way to go Soren, show us how its to be done. No question this will help raise the level of recognition of planning for our communities.

Though, as the story points out, Soren, you really made your pregnant wife suffer through summer without air conditioning in the name of architectural purity for your newly acquired Sugar House home? Wow, now that takes guts.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A Citizens' Alternative By Any Other Name...Smells Just the Same

So let's start out the new year with a bang. I try to stay away from Legacy Highway topics, even though I have been so intimately involved with it, because in the past blogging about it has garnered some pretty hot responses. But what the heck, this one I can't resist, so I'll risk it.

Sunday's DesNews article on the top news stories of 2005 listed the Legacy Highway settlement as the top pick by the editors, though it turned out only one editor picked it as the top story, but the overall rank made it come out on top (readers' choice placed the story at 6th place.)

That's one thing. But another thing has kind of set me off a bit. I just received in the mail the preliminary program for the National APA Conference in San Antonio in April. Browsing through it, I came across a session titled "Smarter Alternatives to Highway Projects." The description reads in part, "Learn how local organizations have developed 'citizens' alternatives' to major highway projects. ... They have been developed through a collaboration of community activists, environmentalists, and consultants in Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont."

I was involved, along with planners from several other south Davis communities, in carefully reviewing the so-called "citizens' alternative" to the Legacy, and it was a pretty much a sham. We determined it was a sham because it would never have worked in the real world. It would never have come close to meeting the future demand that is needed, even with a heavy reliance on transit. The consultants from Vermont who helped prepare the alternative had very little idea of local conditions and how existing roadways worked, which became clear from a little questioning.

And the moniker "citizens' alternative" was a double-barreled red herring, for the following reasons. First, polls that Davis County COG and, later, UDOT, engaged showed that the Legacy Parkway as it was proposed in the EIS was supported by some 80% of Davis County residents, nearly as many in Weber County, and in the high 60 percentage range even in Salt Lake County. So how could the alternative legitimately be called a citizens' alternative?

The second reason for the "citizens' alternative" proposal was for public relations purposes (it sounded really good in the press), and as something that could be put before a judge in another legal challenge to cause further delay. A judge, especially an appeals judge in a city far away, would not have the technical background to know if the alternative were really valid, and could conceivably order a more thorough study.

All that is moot now, with the signing of the agreement (which I whole-heartedly endorse, by the way.)

Except that this sham is now being held up as an example in the national planning conference. I called John Thomas, the UDOT planner who was most involved in the recent developments on the Legacy, and asked him if he was involved in this presentation, and he said he was not even aware of it.

Hmmmm. I don't know who put this forward as a topic for presentation, but you'd think that a reputable professional would check all angles first. Guess not.