Salt Lake City's population is shrinking again — a fact that is solidifying the City Council's desire to spur massive development that would put some 25,000 new residents eight to 10 miles west of downtown.

Those plans, however, are giving pause to champions of urban growth like Mayor Rocky Anderson's office and environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

Almost across the board, City Council members say that developing homes in the city's northwest quadrant — north of I-80 roughly fixed between 6400 and 8800 West — will be key to expanding the city's population base.

"We do have to look at areas of the city where we can build whole, new neighborhoods, and one area would be the northwest quadrant," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said.

There are four or five major property owners — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — of the roughly 3,000 acres of undeveloped land in the area, which is currently zoned agricultural and manufacturing.

That zoning is expected to change once the city completes its Northwest Quadrant Master Plan — a plan the City Council funded this year. The plan should open the area up for what Council members hope will be a new master-planned community, allowing Salt Lake City to compete with suburban cities for new residents and young families.

"I want to see it developed correctly," Council member Carlton Christensen said. "It will probably be developed one way or another, but I would like to see us truly have a master-planned community."

But the move may not be welcomed by everyone in Salt Lake City, where many residents have championed urban growth and less suburban sprawl. Some, including Anderson's administration, have called for greater urban density and less outlying development.

Northwest quadrant housing would be 60 to 80 blocks from downtown and Anderson's spokeswoman Deeda Seed maintains the development shouldn't take place there until a light-rail spur is built to the Salt Lake City International Airport.

"If we don't have a transit connection, we're going to be creating suburban sprawl," Seed said. "It's going to be a little pocket of unconnected people out there in the middle of nowhere, and that makes no sense from our perspective of urban planning."

A light-rail spur to the airport, however, isn't likely until at least 2015, according to plans from the Wasatch Front Regional Council. And even that spur would still stop several miles east of the northwest quadrant.

City Council members have a much faster timetable for development than 2015.

Lynn De Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, along with Marc Heileson, regional representative of the Sierra Club, say they are keeping a close eye on development plans in the quadrant, which includes wetlands and flood plain.

"We should try to consolidate and concentrate our growth around city centers that are already there in place and actually look for enlivenment and development potential there rather than continuing to go further and further away from those areas where we work and where we play," De Freitas said. Christensen, whose council district includes the northwest quadrant, expects the master plan will be complete in two years, and the council could change zoning by then. After some development work, he expects the city could start seeing homes there five years from now.

Buses could serve the area until light rail became an option, and some of the housing could be clustered in transit-based quarters, Christensen said. It makes sense to plan the community because if Salt Lake City doesn't do it developers will probably gobble up land even farther west outside the city's borders and design it as they please, Christensen said.

Still, there are problems with such distant development, like how the city can afford to reach the distant neighborhoods with police, fire, sewer and other services, Seed said. Those costs cost may prove too much for the already cash-strapped city to bear.

Anderson has fought against far western development before. In 2000 he successfully killed a plan to build a huge new shopping center on 5600 West, saying it was a "sprawl mall."

That said, Anderson is concerned about the city's shrinking population.

In his 2004 State of the City address, the mayor said Salt Lake City would have to compete tooth and nail with the suburbs to attract new residents.

"If Salt Lake City's population growth lags behind that of other communities, each new decade will bring a new loss in the city's political representation at the state Legislature," Anderson said. "Numerous funding sources, including HOME and CDBG funds, are allocated to some degree based on population."

Over a year ago Anderson told the City Council that "this spring, we will be bringing to you an action plan to attract at least 15,000 new residents to Salt Lake City in the next seven years. This will be an ambitious and challenging project, requiring a mix of new housing, different types of residences, zoning changes to allow higher densities, marketing and quality-of-life improvements that will attract new residents."

That action plan has never materialized, and Anderson said several months later it wasn't a plan as much as stating principles of higher-density zoning and walkable communities.

The city's recent population declines are even harder to take since the rest of Utah, with a few exceptions, continues to grow steadily. From 2000 to 2004 the state's population rose from 2,233,169 to 2,469,230 — a 9.6 percent increase.

City leaders have a difficult time explaining the decline, especially since the city's housing market is good and home prices are rising.

"It's not like there's a lot of vacant houses sitting around Salt Lake City," cCouncil cChairman Dale Lambert said.

In Love's neighborhood "homes sell quickly. In my neighborhood homes stay on the market maybe one or two days. It's not like we have deserted neighborhoods or anything."

And beyond the good market the city has tried to encourage housing development through low-interest loans, first-time homebuyer programs and Redevelopment Agency projects.

Despite those efforts, U.S. Census data shows the city shrunk by 2.5 percent between 2002 and 2004.

From 1990 to 2000 the city's population boomed from a 30-year low point of 159,928 to 181,743, reaching its highest level since 1960 (189,454), before the development of suburban sprawl.

The city kept growing until 2002 when its population peaked at 183,160.

But since 2002 the city has witnessed two straight years of decline. By 2003 the city's population had dipped to 179,894, and just-released data for 2004 show the city's population fell to 178,605, a 2.5 percent decrease in two years.