It’s time for all towns to get on board with buffer zone planning

It’s time for all towns to get on board with buffer zone planning


For more than a year, the Sanpete County Planning and Zoning Commission has been grappling with what to permit in the buffer zones around many of the 13 municipalities in the county.

Buttressed by some unhappy experiences, the planning commission has concluded that a lot more language needs to be written and added to the county zoning ordinance,  starting with defining what a buffer zone is, and from there, stating what is allowed in each buffer city buffer zone.

In other words, the time has come for much tighter coordinating between city planning commissions and the county planning commission in approving homes, subdivisions and even things like billboards in the buffer zones.

We agree. If cities, city planning commissions, the county and the county planning commission don’t get on the same page, we’re going to have some awful messes in our county. In fact, we already have such a mess west of Manti.

But to understand what is going on, we need to take a step back. In 2002, Bruce Blackham, then a county commissioner, led a project to rewrite Sanpete County’s zoning ordinance.

County commissioners and citizens advising on the rewrite agreed that the county should try to push housing development into, or at least in the direction of, the 13 municipalities in the county.

The goal was to avoid a hopscotch pattern of housing developments dotting expanses of agricultural land. By doing so, conflicts between residential and agricultural uses would be avoided, which would help preserve agriculture.

But how do you put such a concept into action? The answer was buffer zones.

The county would invite each of its 13 municipalities to define an area extending up to a half mile out from its boundaries. Once the town approved a buffer zone, the zone would go on the county zoning maps.

The most common zone throughout the unincorporated county is A-1, an agricultural zone permitting one housing unit on a maximum of five acres. But under the 2002 zoning rewrite, land in buffer zones was zoned RA-1 (for residential-agriculture). That zone permits one home per half acre.

Meanwhile, the county subdivision ordinance says that someone can subdivide land into four lots, creating a so-called “minor subdivision,” without putting in paved streets, curbs, gutters, sewers, etc.—the types of improvements required in subdivision ordinances in nearly all our Sanpete cities.

There was one more provision of the zoning rewrite: If someone proposed a development in a buffer zone, the county would refer the application to the city involved.

If the city chose, it could annex the land, which would mean development would proceed under city ordinances. If the city chose not the annex, development would proceed under more lenient county rules.

So what has happened? For starters, telling cities if they want to have a say in what happens just outside their boundaries they need to annex the land has not worked. As a big annexation in Ephraim last year demonstrated, annexation is a complicated and expensive process that takes about a year. There’s no way a city can respond to every development application in its buffer zone by trying to annex the property.

Rather, development has proceeded under the county zoning ordinance. In a number of cases, the county planning commission has not been comfortable with what a developer was proposing. But it has been forced to go by the laws on the county books and approve the project.

“All that is doing,” says Loren Thompson, chairman of the county planning commission, “is putting us in a position of sticking it to the cities.”

Take the Manti example. A developer came to county planning and got approval for a minor subdivision in the Manti buffer zone. Then somebody else came in and got another minor subdivision approved next to the first one. Then a third minor subdivision went in nearby.

One of the minor subdivisions had one lot that was pretty large. So someone came to county planning and applied to take the lot, which, mind you, was inside a previous minor subdivision, and subdivide it.

The net result is what is essentially a city neighborhood. Yet there has been no coordination of roads. A city road is paved up to the city boundary. From there, there’s a gravel road running past the entrances to a couple of the subdivisions.

Branching off the gravel road is another gravel road with several houses along it. In fact, it terminates in a cul-de-sac. But the cul-de-sac road has been declared private.

Across the street to the north from where the gravel road starts is other  developable property. It would make sense to plan for an extension of the gravel road into the new area. But that can’t happen. There’s a house in the way.

Meanwhile, someone is putting in a home lot on different property very close to the cul-de-sac. That second developer is running a paved street to his lot. But the paved street can’t connect to the subdivision served by the cul-de-sac vision. Why? Because the other subdivision road is private.

Meanwhile, traffic from all of the minor subdivisions in that part of the Manti buffer zone is flowing onto the Manti City paved road and using it to reach U.S. 89.

To start taking steps to prevent such situations, the county planning commission has asked every city to provide some information. Specifically, the county has asked cities what zoning they would like in their buffer zones, for their future annexation plans (those are required by state law anyway), and for road development plans. The materials would be the basis for new ordinance language regulating what goes on in the various buffer zones.

The information was due April 1. So far only two cities—Manti and Ephraim—have submitted anything. The 11 other cities in Sanpete County need to get on the stick.

City-county coordination of development in buffer zones probably looks like a daunting task. But over time, with jurisdictions working together, it can be done. It has to be done.