The biggest story in 2021 in Utah, including Sanpete County is growth. Utah has been declared the fastest growing state in the nation.
The 2020 U.S. Census, conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when, for instance, Snow College students had left the campus to complete classes by remote learning, almost certainly undercounted Sanpete County population.
The count was 28,437, up just 615 residents from 2010. But the Census’s own estimate for 2021 is 31,800, up almost 4,000 from 2010.
When we hear about LDS wards where membership has increased by 90 people in six months, when we see a proliferation of streets and new homes in parts of our county once covered by brush, and when we continually meet newcomers who tell us they have moved from the Wasatch Front to Sanpete County because they want to live in the “country,” there’s no doubt the county is growing.
So we better prepare now.
The biggest concern is water. The county commission has already recognized that regardless of an owner’s water rights, regardless of how many shares the owner has, there often is not enough water in or on the ground to support the development the owner is requesting.
Wells drilled and water pumped out of the ground in one spot can affect water availability across jurisdictional lines. We have called for a coordinating panel made up of municipal and county representatives to review each development to determine if enough water exists to support it. If not, the proposal must be denied.
If we don’t monitor culinary water use, we could reach a point, sooner than we want to think about, when someone turns on a kitchen faucet and nothing comes out because no water is available.
We’re impressed with what Ephraim is doing in planning generally and in culinary water development specifically. The city’s full-time director of community development is a civil engineer. The city has a full-time city planner.
The city has completed at least three culinary water master plans since 2000. And it has followed the plans. During the past year, it increased its impact fees. It is levying substantial charges on developers and new home purchasers to cover growth-related costs. And is presently has $12 million in the pipeline for expansion of culinary water infrastructure.
Other towns need to follow Ephraim’s lead. It a town doesn’t have a master plan for meeting future culinary water needs, it needs to get one.
The next major issue is roads. If you build a house on a 5-acre lot in the middle of nowhere, you need a road to get to it. And as soon as you grade a road, additional houses are likely to pop up along the road, which means you need a wider road.
The county has contracted with Jones & Demille for a comprehensive road plan, one of the first broad-based planning studies the county has taken on.
The Sanpete County Planning Commission is looking at expanding the number of road classifications in the county from two to four, including a new category called “major roads.” The proposal the Planning Commission is studying calls for wider publicly owned easements for roads, increasing width requirements for most roads and requiring developers to pave any roads that will serve as accesses for three or more houses.
For practical and aesthetic reasons, Sanpete County needs to take a hard look at subdivision placement. The county should try to push residential growth into municipalities, or at minimum, into buffer zones around towns, and discourage a lot of free-floating growth in areas zoned for agriculture.
When it does approve a cluster of a half-dozen or more houses, it should require the owners to develop a shared well and water system.
The county and municipalities need to update their zoning ordinances to (1) conform to state law and (2) address a host of issues that make a big difference once a project is complete, including density per acre, minimum lot size, side yards, setbacks, building heights and landscaping.
One of the biggest dangers is “overzoning”—zoning permitting more intensive development than is needed, such as commercial zoning the length of a Main Street primarily lined by single-family homes.
The result can be a crazy quilt of stores, auto repair shops and two-story office buildings mixed with homes, which quickly leads to deterioration of the homes and a decline in the appearance of the street.
Finally, the county and cities need to take a hard look at our landscapes and streetscapes. We can’t allow a culture of property neglect.
What do we do with hundreds of abandoned turkey sheds scattered across the valley? What about agricultural properties littered with crumbling old houses, outbuildings that are falling down and rusted farm implements? What about the increasing number of yards and curb strips in towns that are going to weed?
If we permit a culture in which property neglect is accepted, we will only attract more of same. This will not only affect all of our property values but erode our quality of life.
No, we can’t stop growth. But we can and must prepare for it—now.