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Public outcry halts Olympia Hills development

Jun 25, 2018 03:44PM ● Published by City Journals Staff

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (left), County Councilmember Jim Walker and Herriman Mayor David Watts listen to resident concerns during a town hall at Herriman High School. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Mariden Williams | mariden.w@mycityjournals.com 

In the face of massive community feedback, the Salt Lake County Council announced on June 19 that it would not seek to override County Mayor Ben McAdams' veto of the Olympia Hills rezone, and the Salt Lake Valley breathed a collective sigh of relief. But even with the density beast defeated for now, concerns remain that the council would happily have allowed such a strongly-opposed proposition to just slide by without notice. 

"Despite our vehement opposition to this plan, as well as other mayors and city councils and literally hundreds and hundreds of emails to the county council, this zoning decision still went forward," said Herriman City Councilmember Nicole Martin. 

The Olympia Hills rezone would have seen 931 acres of unincorporated county land from 6300-8500 West and 12400-13100 South (land that is part of Salt Lake County, but not part of any city) rezoned to allow living space for some 33,000 people— essentially creating a city the size of Midvale or Kearns, but crammed into a third of the land area of either. It would pack an unprecedented 37 people per acre and the county council initially approved the rezone, 7-1. 

"The county council and particularly the county mayor had ample opportunity to talk to us,” said Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs. “They said one of their goals was to minimize or mitigate negative impacts to neighboring communities, and yet I honestly didn't hear about this at all until the week before (the decision was to be made).” 

In fact, almost nobody had heard about it before that point — partly due to the timing of the two legally-required informational county council meetings. The first of these meetings was held on May 22, when most city mayors were at a real estate conference (ICSC) in Las Vegas, and thus unable to attend. The second meeting, held Tuesday, June 5, was the same meeting in which the vote took place — which allowed very little time for the public to express their concerns. 

Even in the limited timeframe afforded, the public still made their voices heard. In a space of mere days, the county council received hundreds and hundreds of emails and phone calls against the rezone. The mayors of Herriman, Riverton, West Jordan, and Copperton released a joint statement urging the council to deny the rezone. 

But the uproar was mostly ignored. At the June 5 meeting, only Councilmember Steven DeBry voted no. 

"The sad thing is, Tuesday night, before they voted, Councilman DeBry had a motion on the table to table this, to give more time for some input and talk about some of these concerns that we've all now voiced," said Staggs. "He could not get a second on his motion, so it just died, and they voted on it anyway, 7-1. Even though that night they had a statement from our city, they had a statement from all of our mayors in office, and they had hundreds of phone calls and emails, none of which were in support. I think I got one email that showed they were in support, out of the hundreds." 

It was only after huge public backlash, lots of negative media coverage, a packed town hall meeting, and a mayoral veto that the county council finally agreed to let the rezone proposal die. 

“The irony is, every talking point from the Mayor’s veto proposal is what I have been advocating for several weeks when this proposal first came forward," said DeBry. “The quantity of emails, phone calls, and citizens attending the town hall was impressive, and this action would not have happened without their voices.” 

Hundreds of Salt Lake Valley residents attended the town hall meeting, held on June 14 at Herriman High School, to air their grievances and urge Mayor McAdams to veto the rezone. Among the many concerns discussed were insufficient roadways (particularly east-west freeways), increased taxes, stretching police and fire services thin, and the lack of schools to support such growth. 

One of the biggest concerns, among residents and elected officials both, was traffic. 

“Olympia Hills, with a density of 37 people per acre, would rank in the top 15 most dense cities in the entire country. We're talking about cities like New York; Queens; the Bronx; Newark, New Jersey and Los Angeles," said Scott Watson, a Herriman resident. “Do you know what all these cities have to accommodate for all this density? Freeways, highways, massive public transportation, trains, subways, fleets of buses. And what do we have here in Herriman? I don't know, a couple of horses.” 

Now that the Olympia Hills project has been put on hold, what will happen next? It seems unlikely the developers will just pack their bags and go home (Doug Young, the Olympia Hills developer, was unavailable for comment) — and even if they did, Olympia Hills surely isn't the only prospective high-density housing development in the county. Utah is a growing state, and sometime, somewhere, something is going to have to give. 

"There is an education process we need to give to our residents on the reality of growth within our community, and our state as a whole," said Herriman Councilmember Nicole Martin at a city council meeting on June 6. "We will not be, we cannot be, a community of one-acre, five-acre lots."

But, must all the growth be centered in the southwestern part of the Salt Lake Valley? Herriman resident Leigh Gibson thinks not. 

“With the US census data proving that the growth rates are trending outside of Salt Lake County, why are we trying to force it back in using ultra high density housing developments?” Gibson asked county leaders at the town hall meeting, kicking off a speech that garnered thunderous applause. "When we had higher growth rates and open land on the east side, we were not proposing near this level of density there." 

As Gibson pointed out, there are “tens of thousands of acres of open land” in other counties, and Salt Lake County is no longer Utah’s hottest site for population growth. In 1995, nearly 42 percent of Utah’s population lived in Salt Lake County, but in 2018 that number decreased to 36 percent.

“This is a clear indicator that the growing population in Utah is looking outside of Salt Lake County for more growth,” said Gibson. “And yet we’re acting like the southwest of Salt Lake Valley is responsible for sustaining the growth of the entire state. The land in the southwest Salt Lake Valley is not the only open land left in the valley, and we need to stop acting like it is.”

 

Travis Barton also contributed to this article.

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