A pair of influential state lawmakers are looking to return autonomy to individual property owners a move that could alter the state's current system of municipal zoning and land-use planning.
"I am very frustrated with municipalities and how they approach land use," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy. "I think that the owner ought to have some presumptions in regard to use of their property."
The issue is causing concern for municipal officials statewide, particularly in Provo, where city officials have raised questions about whether the move is retaliation for a rezoning request Curtis lost before the Provo City Council earlier this summer.
Curtis, an attorney, represented Anderson Development in June and sought to change zoning on 34 acres of property from agricultural to residential to make way for homes.
The request was denied in a 4-3 vote, and while the matter will be discussed again next week, Anderson Development has filed a lawsuit.
Retaliation aside, the plan would have wide-ranging impacts on any city's ability to master plan and zone. In Salt Lake City, for instance, the much-anticipated master planning of the northwest quadrant of the city could be compromised under a new, state-mandated zoning philosophy.
"There are a number of people who have been talking about the proper role of a city in making zoning decisions," said Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, who along with Curtis favors new rules. "Some people feel private property owners are being trampled in the city's role of directing the future."
Under the Curtis-Harper notion, cities would have to give much more justification for zoning decisions. If a city couldn't give specific reasons why a property owner's development was "detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of the community," it shouldn't be banned, they say.
Also, the pair want to put time limitations on how long cities could take to make development decisions. Harper and Curtis say there will be legislation next year that will rein in zoning decisions. The pair have shared draft concepts for a bill via e-mail.
Curtis says "the Provo issue exactly demonstrates the problem," maintaining the city had no legitimate reason not to grant the request.
Councilman Dave Knecht disagrees and points to a lack of transportation infrastructure to support dense development.
"There are only so many ways to get out of that area," he said.
Knecht and other Provo City Council members say they want to see more attention focused on roads before approving large neighborhood developments.
The tension isn't atypical with developers and city leaders often at odds over what shape a landscape should take.
Developers often become frustrated by inconsistent municipal decisions, like Provo approving residential zoning for one developer and denying it for another, says Charles Buki, a national planning consultant who has held senior positions at the Neighborhood Reinvestment Commission and the American Institute of Architects.
Buki, who is Virginia-based, favors good planning processes but concedes zoning is "probably not the most perfect tool in the 21st century. . . . The zoning process is a poor forum to hash out the debate" between developers looking at short-term profits and city officials who want long-term stability.
Presently, cities can "make any zoning decisions they want so long as it's not made in an arbitrary and capricious manner," said Lincoln Shurtz, legislative analyst for the Utah League of Cities & Towns.
That type of latitude allows cities to zone land agricultural, residential or commercial and divvy up chunks of residential land to allow for higher density housing or larger lots.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Jill Remington Love maintains local zoning control is of supreme importance.
"Through zoning we've been able to protect a lot of our neighborhoods in Salt Lake City," she said. "We've been able to protect our foothills and protect the downtown in a way by preventing sprawl and concentrating development."
Curtis and Harper want to stop cities from employing what can be inconsistent zoning, such as saying one area can have homes on 5,000-square-foot lots while an area down the road has to have larger lots. There's no health, safety or public welfare reason to let one area have more dense development in it than another, Curtis says.
The two lawmakers also want to eliminate issues that come up with agricultural land. Much undeveloped open space is zoned agricultural, even though it's not being used to grow crops. Cities zone land agricultural to make property owners who want to develop it to come to the city to negotiate, Curtis contends.
Property owners then have to barter with the city over density, development fees, open space and other issues before any change in the zoning is endorsed.
"The whole concept of a 'holding' zone so that when you want to use your property you have to come in and negotiate kind of bothers me," Curtis said.
Many city leaders are riled about the move to make changes and vented frustration at Harper at the Oct. 17 meeting of the league's Legislative Policy Committee. Some have suggested the changes could make the entire state have Houston-style zoning rules. Houston is infamous as one of the worst-planned cities in the United States.
The fear is that cities would be forced to have industrial uses or municipal solid-waste dumps right next to housing developments.
Curtis said such "sky is falling" attitudes are overblown. He said it would be easy for cites to justify why having a solid waste dump in the middle of a residential area would harm the health, safety or welfare of the community."In the years past, people developed their property as they wanted, and then cities became larger and started planning, and the burden shifted from the city to prove that what was being proposed was inappropriate to now where the property owner has to justify what he wants," said Harper, who once served as West Jordan City's chief of economic development. "I think Speaker Curtis wants to shift that back to the way it used to be."