Fearful of rampant growth, officials put control in the hands of citizens who preferred collaboration to government dictates.
(by Colin Woodard politico.com 1-18-17)
Imagine getting 90 municipalities in 10 counties in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions to get on board for a 20-year land use planning effort intended to conserve water use, promote clean air and avoid the destruction of open spaces by slashing housing lot sizes, encouraging higher-density development and imposing new taxes to build a light rail network and commuter rail system from scratch. Imagine that it worked so well the effort expanded statewide.
You might assume it must have started in a liberal bastion like Portland, Oregon or Burlington, Vermont, where people are proud to be tree huggers and planning isn’t a dirty word. But the most ambitious and successful long-term land-use planning effort in American history is happening in ultra-conservative Utah, a state with powerful ranching, mining and energy interests and a reflexive distrust of top-down government solutions. And it was led not by state officials, but by a bipartisan alliance of business, industrial, religious, political and civic leaders, working from plans crowd-sourced from tens of thousands of Utah citizens and executed on a completely voluntary basis by their local governments.
“Our purpose is not to lead somewhere, our purpose is to let the public see their choices and let them lead,” Robert Grow, president, CEO and a co-founder of Envision Utah, the public-private partnership that put the planning questions on Utahns’ agenda 20 years ago and helped keep them there ever since. “They are going to chose the future, so we’re empowering them by letting them see what their choices are and helping them implement those choices.”
The results have been impressive: Per capita water use has been cut by more than a quarter and air emissions slashed by nearly half, while 300 square miles of rural and open land have been spared from development. Automobile use has actually dropped slightly in terms of vehicle miles travelled, even as the region’s population has increased by a third, thanks to what is one of the largest transit transit rail systems per capita in the country. Taxpayers have saved billions in avoided infrastructure spending and maintenance and Envision Utah has been feted by city planners across the country as a model for how to do things right. Envision staff have traveled across the country, providing advice to groups in Detroit and Omaha, North Carolina’s Piedmont Triangle and North Dakota’s Oil Sands, Yellowstone and Eastern Oregon.
“They’ve made a remarkable and important and indelible contribution to who we have become and how we will become,” says Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, who has observed the effort since its inception. “It’s energized people to understand that they can and must be part of how the future is shaped.”
This approach—voluntary, bottom-up, large-scale and long-term—has clicked with the people of a conservative state and bridged historic divisions between Mormons and non-Mormons, environmentalists and mining interests, farmers and city-dwellers. And it came out of an unlikely gathering 30 years ago. Some of the most influential figures in a staid and recession-shocked state came together at a dude ranch owned by the man who was the model for American fiction’s most famous bulldozer-destroying environmental activist.
In some respects, Utah's embrace of long-term planning should come as no surprise. The impulse to protect and perfect this place, and to steward it on behalf of future generations is part of a cultural and religious heritage that dates to initial Euro-American settlement in the 1840s.
For the Mormons—who still constitute 60 percent of the state’s population—this is literally the Holy Land, and the early settlers saw parallels between their experiences and the Biblical Hebrews. They were fleeing in an exodus—from attacks by non-Mormons against their previous capital of Nauvoo, Illinois—to find a place to build a new Zion. When Brigham Young crossed the Wasatch Mountains and gazed down on the valley, he declared “This is the place.” It appeared a perfect analog of the Holy Land, where the freshwater Sea of Galilee feeds the salty Dead Sea via the 65-mile River Jordan. Freshwater Utah Lake feeds Great Salt Lake via a 30-mile stream the Mormons named the Jordan River. Mirroring Jerusalem, the Mormons placed their capital near the shores of their salty sea, centered on a grid extending from a point Young chose for Temple Square, the 40-acre ecclesiastical center of their nation, at the time located in territory claimed by Mexico, but governed by nobody.
The Mormons worked from Young’s detailed plans. Salt Lake City consisted of 135 10-acre lots, each broken into eight individual parcels, with homes set back 20 feet from all boundaries for fire control. Roads were a uniform 132 feet wide, so a team of oxen could turn around in them, and residents initially tended a communal 25-acre garden. Outside the city, farmers were assigned 40- to 80-acre lots and worked to construct dams, ditches and canals to irrigate the fields under the direction of a Mormon bishop. By Young’s decree, towns were situated every 25 miles, the distance a wagon could travel in a day. “All of those decisions by Young were urban planning constructs, and somehow that ethic has seeped into the sinews of the state,” says three-term governor Mike Leavitt who, like the majority of Utah elected officials past and present, is a member of the Mormons’ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “Utah is a culture of planners and I think that may in some way even be mystical.”
But Utah is also part of the Interior West, a region where much of the land is controlled by the federal government, and whose traditional resource extraction economy has often clashed with federal environmental and land use laws and regulations. Between the Pentagon, tribal reservations, the National Park Service, Bureau of Public Lands and other federal agencies, 60 percent of Utah is federally controlled, and even outside those areas, state and federal authorities have crossed swords in the past over everything from church-state relations to abortion. So despite its early origins as a Utopia-building theocracy, top-down government initiatives and centralized planning have been long held suspect. “There’s been this interesting dynamic in Utah’s history between individualism and communitarianism,” says former Envision Utah executive director Alan Matheson, who now heads the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. “All these people come to an area with a harsh environment and had to pull together to survive, but they also had the tension with the idea of the rugged individual on the Western frontier.”
For its first century, planning for long-term growth wasn’t an issue because the state was vast and it’s population small. Even the 120-mile long valley along the front of the Wasatch Mountains—home to Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden and 80 percent of the state’s people—appeared to have plenty of elbow room in 1950, when Utah had less than 690,000 residents.
But by the end of the 1960s, all of that was changing. The construction of the Interstate highway system and the advent of mass air travel decreased Utah’s isolation, and the Cold War investments in Hill Air Force base and research on intercontinental missiles brought large numbers of outsiders to the state. Captivated by the beauty of the mountains and the proximity to ski resorts, many of the newcomers stayed. Salt Lake County grew by more than a third during the ’60s to nearly 300,000, even as the city itself shrunk by 14,000, simultaneously creating sprawl and slums. Out-of-state speculators were building subdivisions in prime farmland in rural counties that had no planning capacities of any kind, or simply sitting on the land, which went fallow, reducing employment and weakening the agricultural economy.
In 1973, Governor Calvin Rampton advanced a law that would create a land use commission empowered to help local governments follow planning guidelines. With the support of 28 of Utah’s 29 county commissions, state health officials, environmentalists, garden clubs, both of Utah’s U.S. senators, the federal agencies, and the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, it passed the Republican-controlled legislature. But developers hated it and mobilized a petition drive that put the issue up for statewide referendum. The John Birch Society and the far-right American Party told voters the law would contravene God-given property rights and allow state officials to dictate what color to paint their homes. The American Party’s leading light, Ezra Taft Benson—president of the Latter Day Saints’ Council of Twelve Apostles (the second highest governing body in the church) and later the church’s president—declared their effort to be based on “divine and eternal principles” and followed the philosophy of his “own church people.” Voters overturned the law by a margin of more than 60 percent, dealing Rampton the greatest political defeat of his career.
So resounding was the backlash that nobody in fast-growing Utah dared speak of planning for two decades.
Innovation is often born of crisis, and in Utah that crisis was the metals recession of the mid-1980s, which shook its traditional economy to its core. It prompted U.S. Steel to close the massive Geneva Steel plant—which had been built during World War II on the shores of Utah Lake because it was beyond the range of Japanese bombers—laying off 2,400 and indirectly killing the jobs of another 7,500. Another major employer, Kennecott Copper’s massive open pit mine south of Salt Lake City, halted operations. “We saw a period where Utah’s biggest exports were our own children, because they were well-educated and had to leave the sate to find a job,” recalls Grow, who bought the Geneva mill with a partner and would later put it back into production. “So a lot of farsighted people worked really hard to strengthen and diversify our economy so we would never suffer that kind of situation again.”
The convener of this effort was local television station KUTV whose civic-minded owners, George and Gene Hatch, tasked it with making public policy documentaries and championing the preservation of natural treasures like what is now Arches National Park. “They were people who don’t care about money, but they cared about the community,” recalls Steve Holbrook, then a state legislator. “This was their way of contributing and having some say.”
As the state reeled in the recession in the fall of 1987, the Hatches invited two dozen movers and shakers to a retreat at the Pack Creek Ranch, a rustic lodge and cabins in the foothills above the southeastern town of Moab owned by river runner Ken Sleight, the model for the developer-fighting radical Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s bestselling novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. The guests included some of the state’s most wealthy businessmen, a state Supreme Court justice, university president, and low-income advocate, a former governor and the editor of the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, the former president of the state senate and the soon-to-be speaker of the Utah house. “Somehow they had the firepower to get some of the top leaders in the state to come and talk about Utah’s future,” recalls Karen Shepherd, publisher of a magazine for professional women and later elected to the U.S. House. “Everyone agreed there was a leadership vacuum, and that there were no women or people of color or people from the outside with different ideas.”
The Deseret News would describe that vacuum this way: “a void created by the irony that the state runs under a homogenous political system largely dominated by white, Mormon men, while at the same time, some say, the LDS Church no linger chooses to provide leadership in state affairs, preferring instead to define itself as a worldwide church.” The consensus at the ranch: the state desperately needed a coalition of diverse, dynamic leaders who could put selfish, short-term concerns aside and think and act for the long-term future of the state. Absent clear alternatives, the participants decided to take on the task themselves.
The result was the Coalition for Utah’s Future, a 34-member group that used its influence over the next several years to grow the software industry, promote investments in light rail and child care and to pass laws requiring that insurance companies cover children up to age 26. But Utah recovered quickly from the recession in the early 1990s, becoming one of the fastest growing states in the country. Highways, water supplies, and open land were feeling the strain, especially along the Wasatch Front where four-fifths of its people lived. “You could begin to feel the seams creak in the infrastructure and in people’s patience and in the cultural change it was bringing,” recalls Mike Leavitt, who left the coalition in 1993 to start a successful run for governor.
The Wasatch Front region’s quality of life was in danger, and for Utah that represented a threat to the entire economy. Utah had a nascent technology cluster— Wordperfect and Novell were based here—and economic development officials were making the pitch to Silicon Valley companies that greater Salt Lake City was a cheaper, nicer and easier place to grow their businesses. “I set an objective that I wanted to be in Silicon Valley more than the governor of California,” recalls Leavitt, who later served as a cabinet secretary in George W. Bush’s administration. “My pitch was: ‘You have your engine going, but now your constraint is where people are going to possibly afford to live. And here you can buy a home, live affordably, hunt and fish and hike and enjoy open lands and it will make you more competitive.’ That was our economic strategy, but growth was going to eat our seed corn, which was the quality of life.”
That Salt Lake City had just been selected to host the 2002 Winter Olympics only heightened the sense of urgency.
A year into his first term, coalition members approached Leavitt with a proposal that the state sponsor a planning effort to address the problem. He declined, citing the moral of Governor Rampton’s 1973 effort: Utahns won’t tolerate anything viewed as a top-down effort to manage their lives. But the governor championed a more innovative approach: a bottom-up, collaborative decision making effort backed by state and private sector know-how. “You’re organizing a community or a society, not an entity, so you’re dealing with shared power not unilateral power,” Leavitt says of the philosophy. Utahns resist dictates from above, he reasoned, but they are also unusually willing to collaborate if given the chance.
The coalition was willing to guide the process, but how to get everyone’s trust? The first strategic step was to reach out to what came to be called the “brass roots,” leaders from every influential sector. Grow, who had been a developer’s attorney before rescuing Geneva Steel and was active in the LDS church, was recruited to head the effort, and brought industrial interests, church officials, local mayors and—most critical—leading homebuilders into the fold before the effort was even unveiled. “Had we not been brought to the table early on, with an opportunity to make our feelings known and understood,” a prominent developer later told M.I.T sociologist Xavier de Souza Briggs, “…I don’t know if Envision Utah would have ever found its legs. The real estate industry would have gone about the same thing [as it did] in ’73.” Holbrook had wide contacts in the legislature and environmental community. By the time Envision Utah was unveiled, there were 110 board members and Governor Leavitt had signed on as honorary co-chair alongside Larry Miller, the popular owner of the Utah Jazz basketball team.
By design, Envision Utah would have no powers whatsoever; it would foster discussion of what to do about growth, but participation was voluntary and action would remain entirely up to local officials. Its initial focus would be on the future of the 10 counties of the Wasatch Front and the Wasatch Back, the treasured rural area on the other side of the mountains where many of Utah’s most popular ski resorts and outdoor recreational attractions are located. And the time horizon would be distant: 2020, then more than two decades away. “If you have the horizon too close in then you are in the middle of today’s battles,” Grow explains, “but if it’s far enough out you can see a convergence of people’s best ideas.” It would draw on state planners to crunch data, but look to the public to decide what to do with the results.
Another secret ingredient was Richard Wirthlin. The son of a Mormon bishop and brother of a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Wirthlin had been Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist and pollster, who pioneered something called “values research” and used it to help industries and politicians build and sell an image. Wirthlin’s job was to reveal how people’s values intersected with a public policy issue. “We asked what Utahns really wanted in their future, then what the characteristics were of that future they wanted, and finally the emotional reasons for why they wanted them,” recalls Grow. The focus-group data revealed two things. First, semantics mattered: “Nature and the outdoors” were far more popular than “the environment,” for instance. Second, people were ultimately seeking peace of mind, and a lot of that had to do with having a place that their families would want to remain rooted to. “People want to make sure that their children and grandchildren stay close, to have the opportunity to get a job, to live in beauty and open spaces, and to have a comfortable and convenient life. That was an emotional driver for policy,” says Matheson, who later headed Envision Utah. “Understanding people’s values was a really important way not just to understand what people want, but to motivate action to get there.”
Envision Utah's official launch in January 1997 was high-profile and symbolically savvy. New Urbanist consultants Peter Calthorpe and John Fregonese came in from Portland, Oregon to outline alternatives to expensive, sprawling growth. They were backed up by a costumed actor playing Brigham Young, who reminded the audience and assembled media of his strong support for urban planning.
The LDS church—the state’s biggest landowner after the federal government— quietly supported the process, especially via supportive coverage in the Deseret News and participation of senior officials. “They are a smart organization and they recognize the value of public feedback and the grassroots work Envision Utah does,” says Nate Currey, a former Envision Utah public relations director.
“Envision Utah works for everybody—LDS and non-LDS—using mechanisms that don’t exist in the church’s very top-down structure. I think the LDS church respects and supports that.” (The LDS Church declined an interview request.)
To ascertain what Utahns actually wanted the Wasatch Front to look like in 2020, the organization convened scores of town hall meetings across the region and later distributed half a million mail-in surveys in the daily newspapers. At the town hall meetings and in the surveys, residents were offered four growth scenarios, ranging from hands-off to Norway-like planning, that showed what the region would look like once there were 2.6 million people instead of 1.6 million. At the workshops, participants were given maps to let them toy with where to put everything, showing the trade-offs in terms of open space, lot sizes, commuting times, air pollution and water use. “At the table you might have a developer, a realtor, a Mormon bishop and a female council member working on this together,” recalls Holbrook, the executive director of the coalition. “It was surprising how much people agreed.”
Ted Knowlton, a planning consultant at the time, grew up in the area and was flabbergasted at the level of consensus at the meetings. “The light bulbs just went off as people started to understand the link between development patterns near them and the broader regional consequences,” he recalls. “There was such a groundswell of support for dong something decidedly different.” Nearly 60 percent of respondents chose one of the two most restrictive options (more at the Norwegian end of the scale). The most popular option was a moderately compact alternative to sprawl that encouraged the development of neighborhood and village centers using region-wide light and commuter rail. “The fundamental things, like do you want transit and walkabilty and clean air and an undeveloped Wasatch Back, the public was already there.”
The result was a blueprint released in 1999, the Quality Growth Strategy, which laid out a scenario that, by measures like reducing lot sizes, building transit, bike paths, trails and walkable, mixed-use developments, would theoretically reduce infrastructure costs by $5 billion, save 300 square miles of farms and open land, and slash air pollution and water use. But only if people actually acted on it.
That’s when Envision Utah pivoted from creating a blueprint to helping willing towns, counties, developers and state agencies to implement it. It didn’t hurt that it’s new chairman in 1999 was one of the most influential businessmen in the state; Jon Huntsman Jr., who would be elected governor five years later, and much of the state’s “brass roots” were committed to the effort. Legislators allocated grants for local planners and a $6 million fund to help buy conservation easements from farmers.
Governor Leavitt launched a public awareness campaign on the site where Brigham Young declared “This is the place.” Once again, an actor again appeared as the Mormon prophet to put in a good word for planning and neighborliness. Newspapers and television stations donated airtime and advertising space. “There were a lot of people who had invested effort in the initial vision,” recalls Matheson. “They didn’t want it to just be put on the shelf. There was too much at stake.”
Although Envision Utah was simply offering expertise, data and tools to local officials, it started as an uphill struggle. “The attitude, especially in local government, was that we don’t want some outside group telling us what to do when we develop our community,” says Tom Dolan, who has been mayor of the central valley city of Sandy, for 20 years. But it did. In Sandy, where existing plans centered around lots of two-story office buildings surrounded by seas of parking, Dolan worked with Envision Utah to devise a 30-year master plan featuring higher density areas and, ultimately, four light rail stops. “If Envision Utah hadn’t existed, we would have developed the way we had been,” he admits, adding he was an opponent of light rail until after it was built. “It was a lack of vision.”
Momentum slowly gathered. Envision Utah staff worked with other cities on demonstration projects to show the merits of walkable, mixed-use, village center types of developments. With the Olympics approaching, Salt Lake County residents in 2000 approved a sales tax increase to build the region’s first light rail loop to move spectators around the capital, creating a foundation and demonstration project for a wider transit system. But the biggest experiment in the new model would be executed by the last entity you’d expect.
The Oquirrh mountains (pronounced Oh-ker) on the west side of the Jordan valley are home to one of the West’s more unusual tourist attractions: the largest open pit copper mine on the planet. Situated at the top of Bingham Canyon, the Kennecott mine’s pit is two and a half miles wide and more than half a mile deep, an inverted pyramid that’s the only active mine to be designed a national landmark and is the largest manmade excavation in the world. When it opened in 1906, it was out of the way, bordering on alfalfa fields and pasture in the sleepy farming hamlet of South Jordan. But by 2000 it stood on the edge of an expanding metroplex of 2 million people. Between the mine and the expanding city were thousands of acres of empty Kennecott buffer land. Rio Tinto, the London-based mining conglomerate that had acquired Kennecott in 1989, had long seen that the best use of the land would be to develop it. Now they approached Envision Utah about making it a showcase of all their principles.
“The people within Rio Tinto brought a sense of sustainability that maybe previously hadn’t been a part of Kennecott and they wanted to leave a legacy,” says Cameron Jackson, marketing director for the resulting development, Daybreak. “Envision Utah was going on at the same time, so it made sense to hook up with them.” The mining firm hired Peter Calthorpe—the same planner Envision Utah had brought in—to create a master plan for a city-size development on roughly 4,100 acres. Instead of traditional third-of an-acre lots on cul de sacs, Daybreak would feature homes on lots half that size with front-facing porches and back alley-loaded garages, built around lakes, open parks, swimming pools, and bike paths. There would be numerous “neighborhood centers” (with a school, park or community facility), frequent “village centers” (with a local market or coffee shop) and the occasional “town center,” with condominium or apartment buildings and ground-floor restaurants, grocery stores or retail. Greater density would form around two light rail stations with office buildings, bigger retail and taller residential structures. By the 2030s, planners expect a total of 20,000 units will be built, more than doubling South Jordan’s population.
Today, Daybreak is half-complete and is one of the top-selling master-planned communities in the United States. Some 15,000 people live there, most in homes built in the Craftsman, European Revival and Victorian styles that dominated the tree-lined urban residential neighborhoods of a century ago. Nine in 10 children walk to school and almost every home is within a five-minute walk of some combination of shopping, light rail or park. “When you do the math, the tax base is actually improved, because there’s more homes per acre that pay property taxes, and that level of density has attracted businesses at a higher rate because they’re looking for rooftops,” Jackson notes. It also uses less water, consumes less land, and its residents travel fewer vehicle miles because they can walk, bike or ride the rails for at least some of their daily trips.
Daybreak, and other demonstration projects, have transformed popular attitudes about density and rail transit, even among developers. Lane Beattie, a real estate professional who had been president of the state senate when Envision Utah was getting off the ground, recalls the shift. “People started to see that growth and development could be done without creating ghettos and hardship,” recalls Beattie, now the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. “They got us thinking what we needed as a state and what we were going to be as a people in 10, 20 or 50 years. And as we looked into the distance, the business community could also see that if people got gridlocked on the freeways, it would cripple our economic growth.”
The chamber didn’t merely get behind a proposal to build a 90-mile commuter rail line the length of the Wasatch Front, with four new light rail spurs to places like Daybreak and improvements to the adjacent highway, it sponsored the requisite ballot measure, which was also backed by Governor Huntsman, the state’s Sierra Club and Congressional delegation, and a majority of the region’s mayors. In 2006, Salt Lake County voters passed a quarter-cent sales tax increase on themselves by a nearly two-to-one margin, a result that would have shocked Ezra Taft Benson, the Mormon leader and planning critic, had he been alive to see it.
“It used to be you would go to a planning commission meeting and the people in the public would be saying ‘Not in my backyard,’” Matheson recalls. “Now it was ‘How does this fit into our broader community vision.’ It didn’t mean NIMBY was gone, but it changed the dialogue quite a bit.
Now the Wasatch Front is one of the largest transit rail systems per capita in the country: 88 miles of commuter rail and 52 of light rail serving 69 stops, many of them now hubs of the sort of walkable, mixed-use, higher-density development that New Urbanists salivate over. (More than 9,000 housing units have been built within a half mile of a station in the past six years alone.) The town of Sandy is using its bus links to the four ski resorts in the adjacent Cottonwood Canyon to market its downtown as the “ultimate basecamp.” In 2012, the LDS Church completed a $2 billion mall-and-residential complex across from Temple Square at the heart of Salt Lake City: 111 apartments, 424 condos, 104 stores, seven restaurants, and a 1,000-seat food court, all with the intention of reversing blight. “We believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually, Keith McMullin, head of the church-owned real estate holding company, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It's for furthering the aim of the church to make, if you will, bad men good, and good men better."
But growth hasn’t stopped, and the challenge ahead is daunting. Last month, the Census Bureau revealed Utah was the fastest growing state in the country, and the majority of the growth is due to its people having the nation’s highest birth rate. Projections show Utah will nearly double its population to 5.4 million by 2050, further compounding the challenge of maintaining the quality of life its people treasure. So in 2013, current Governor Gary Herbert asked Envision Utah to do their magic again, only this time working statewide to determine what Utahns want the place to look like at mid-century.
The latest public outreach effort surveyed 53,000 Utahns on their scenario preferences for not one but 11 topics, from development and transportation to disaster resilience and the utilization of public lands. The resulting vision calls for water conservation measures to reduce consumption by at least 10 percent, extending outward the interconnected, mixed-use development patterns set forth by the original project and prioritizing the cultivation of food rather than feed crops for animals. The current effort on the Wasatch Front focuses on the so-called Point of the Mountain area, where the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges pinch the valley between Salt Lake City and Provo and technology jobs are spurring rapid growth; in December, area stakeholders met for the first time to start talking about what they want the place to become.
“We’re still a geographical area bounded by mountains and lakes and we’re still continually thinking and reinventing and bringing people together to continue asking the big questions,” says Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, an inter-government association responsible for planning transportation projects in Salt Lake and three other counties. “How do we absorb more than a million people in the next few decades? How do we want to grow?”