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Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News
Verlyn Durfey of Wasatch Homes walks along the sidewalk in front of houses in Rosecrest development, a 2,300-acre planned subdivision.

Go figure: On the day when Salt Lake City is lauded as an anti-sprawl champion, Salt Lake County building permit figures show the cities surrounding Utah's capital are sprawling out in record numbers.

New data from Salt Lake County show unprecedented growth reaching to the outermost regions of the county. Preliminary estimates for housing permits show record-breaking numbers for the county with a projected 6,984 housing permits issued throughout the valley this year-to-date, a nearly 5 percent increase since 2000.

Herriman — the furthermost spot west and south of Salt Lake City's downtown — saw the most housing growth. The now-sprawling community, once full of open fields and cow pastures, was followed closely by other suburban cities like West Jordan, South Jordan, Riverton and Draper. Collectively, they are five of the six Salt Lake County municipalities that are farthest from downtown.

All the sprawl makes some wonder what Salt Lake City's anti-sprawl efforts mean in a county that seems bent on stretching its borders to the limit.

"You have good things happening in one area, and then you have the worst kind of sprawl you can get in the Herriman area, which is so far away and causes people to drive so far for every errand," Sierra Club regional representative Marc Heileson said. "Instead of tearing up farmland for automobile-dependent sprawl, let's infill the places we have downtown and revitalize them."

It was a Sierra Club report released Wednesday that touted Salt Lake City's work to curb sprawl by promoting transit and urban redevelopment

The report, "Building Better: A Guide to America's Best New Development Projects," lauds a dozen cities, from San Mateo, Calif., to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., for their urban development efforts.

Salt Lake City's way of handling development, by filling in existing empty spaces within the city, "provides a choice" for people in deciding where to locate, Heileson said.

And some are making that choice.

Salt Lake City was sixth on the list for most permits with 489, and Francis Lilly, research analyst at the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said most of that is infill development. Total permits for additions and renovations in the city racked up a value of over $186.1 million so far this year, an unprecedented 168.7 percent increase from the same time last year.

The Sierra Club report praised the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is investing some $500 million in downtown redevelopment, as well as the Utah Transit Authority's TRAX light-rail line and city officials like Mayor Rocky Anderson and the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency.

LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said the report "recognizes laudable efforts by many in Salt Lake City to plan and build for a healthy, livable future. The church is pleased to play a part in making our city a place everyone can enjoy."

And while most agree downtown will be a better place when the church finishes its mixed-use redevelopment plans, in Salt Lake County's existing free market most people are choosing to live far away, according to the housing building permit figures.

"Unfortunately, in some places in the county the message has come down that you can combat sprawl by having larger lots," said Brenda Case Scheer, dean of the University of Utah's College of Architecture and Planning. Larger lots actually make sprawl worse by eating up open space and creating higher infrastructure costs, Scheer said.

In some places, however, city leaders are learning that denser development can save open space, lead to cheaper infrastructure costs and therefore less expensive housing, Scheer said.

"These are slow lessons, but I'm encouraged that people in this county are learning them at all because in a lot of places they don't," she said.

Most of the new homes are being built in southwestern communities like Herriman and West Jordan, two cities that topped the list of new home permits this year. Developers in Herriman gained 788 new housing permits so far this year, many of which went to a new development called Rosecrest that built roughly 320 new homes in 2005.

Those high figures for the county's southwest are far above new permits in more urban areas like South Salt Lake, with only 15 permits so far this year.

"South Salt Lake is really low, but the difference in South Salt Lake is that it is built out. Communities like Herriman and West Jordan have a lot of room to grow," Lilly said.

Mike Bradshaw, vice president for development of Rosecrest, defends new housing in the far reaches of the county. The Rosecrest development, a 2,300-acre planned subdivision, straddles the Herriman and Bluffdale border with a projected 5,000 homes. Roughly 1,800 homes are already under way.

"In reality over the last couple years, I've been hard-pressed to build lots fast enough. Our sales have really stayed strong," Bradshaw said.

Demand for housing along the county's west bench has surged recently, Bradshaw said, as residents realized they didn't have to live in pricey east-side homes to maintain a "mountain lifestyle."

Developments spreading farther out from downtown Salt Lake City mean developers have to plan for roadways and service to the residents, but Bradshaw said the distance to downtown has not been an obstacle for Rosecrest builders or buyers.

Planned open spaces and mixed-use commercial pockets can also help downplay the feeling of suburban sprawl as housing inches southwest.

"I don't think downtown's going to die anytime soon, but we see people making lifestyle choices to live close to the mountains," he said. "If they are well-planned and sustainable, I would say that's not spreading and sprawling."

County Mayor Peter Corroon's office has taken notice of the growth. The mayor recently hired two new planners to help ensure good planning as west-side growth continues, said Jeff Daugherty, director of the county's planning and development services division.

As the county expands, city and county officials will have to work together to make sure growth doesn't become unmanageable sprawl, he said.

County leaders will also be busier trying to provide services like sanitation and sheriff's patrols to the new areas, Daugherty added.

"It's always a concern about how we keep up. The council and the mayor have been very proactive in their support, and that is going to pay off big in the long run," he said. "A little thoughtfulness today is going to save us a lot of headache in the future."

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com; bsnyder@desnews.com