The state's city and county governments may have dodged a few bullets this past legislative session as bills seeking to limit municipal-planning powers died or were gutted, but both developers and local officials expect the battle to continue in coming years.

Neil Lindberg, a land-use attorney who advises the Provo City Council, told the Wasatch Front Regional Council's Regional Growth Committee on Thursday that developers and property-rights groups have been — and probably will continue to be — a loud voice in lobbying and getting their complaints across to legislators. Cities and counties, meanwhile, lack an avenue for consistent communication with lawmakers.

"Local governments aren't regularly telling their stories," he said.

Among the most visible land-use bills at the 2006 Legislature was Senate Bill 170, sponsored by Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, a real estate broker and president of the National Association of Realtors. SB170 would have tightly restricted municipal governments' leeway in making zoning decisions, setting up a situation in which local governments would carry a heavy burden to prove their rulings were vital to protect a community's interests.

The bill "would have turned planning on its head," Lindberg said.

But Michael Hutchings, a lawyer who represents developers like Anderson Development and who wrote part of SB170, said in an interview Thursday that the bill would have brought fairness to a zoning process that is inconsistent from city to city and that leaves developers at the mercy of city councils reacting to public whims.

"There's a desire by landowners for fairness in the planning process at city hall," Hutchings said. "There's a great amount of frustration that landowners, builders and developers have experienced in dealing with some cities and some counties on land-use issues."

Local officials, on the other hand, contend that no two sites are alike, and each proposed development should be studied individually and left to planners' and city councils' discretion. That can take time, and unexpected issues can arise.

SB170 was replaced by two less-dramatic substitute bills, both of which the Legislature approved. One aims to speed zoning decisions and requires reporting on fees collected from developers. Another expands the Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman and allows developers to appeal zoning decisions to the ombudsman or another mediator. Hutchings predicts developers' drive for more freedom will be back in future legislative sessions.

"That's an issue you will see raised next year," he said. "It's not a dead issue."

Lindberg told the regional council that city planners and governments should work to head off complaints by being more consistent in zoning decisions and setting quantifiable standards, rather than relying on judgment calls for individual developments.

He also said cities and counties need to do a better job in letting legislators know why zoning decisions are made and what issues city planners face. The Utah Property Rights Ombudsman, a state official who investigates developers' complaints about local zoning decisions, often issues reports to the Legislature outlining accusations of governments being unreasonable. Lindberg said that tends to give lawmakers only part of the picture.

"If you're constantly getting those reports," Lindberg said, "what are you likely to believe?"

But Hutchings maintains the complaints are closer to the norm than the exception.

"It's amazingly common," he said. "The unfairness, unfortunately, is amazingly common, especially in some jurisdictions."

Hutchings said the substitutes to SB170 were compromises that fell short of what developers really want. Developers still would like specific deadlines for zoning decisions. They also want zoning requests to be approved unless cities and counties can show in court or before the state ombudsman that projects would be harmful.

Property owners and lawmakers plan to spend the next few months talking to representatives from the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties to try reach some kind of agreement, in preparation for any new bills that may enter the battlefield.


E-mail: dsmeath@desnews.com