About Utah: Heber City and paying the steep price of progress

Published: Sunday, Aug. 3 2014 11:35 p.m. MDT

Livability.com considers Heber City, its new Walmart included, among America's top 10 small towns.

Lee Benson

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HEBER CITY — Uh-oh. First the Wal-Mart. Then the strip mall surrounding it. Then they tore down the McDonald’s and built a brand new bigger one.

Now this.

The website livability.com has come out with its list of Top 10 Small Towns in America.

Heber City is No. 8.

Just how much attention can one small town stand?

It’s a question that former Mayor David Phillips, for one, has been pondering for a long time now.

He came to Heber 32 years ago because he sized it up as a perfect place to raise his family and get away from it all without getting away from it all. For 27 years, until he retired, he commuted to work in downtown Salt Lake City, driving 45 minutes each way.

“A small price to pay,” he says of the drive. “Every day I got to come home to Heber.”

He’d be surprised if Heber City wasn’t on the list of America’s best small towns.

Give him, oh, three seconds, and, like a lot of Heber dwellers, he will rattle off everything Heber has going for it. The reservoirs on either end of town — Deer Creek on the south, Jordanelle on the north — the Provo River in between, the 90 holes of public golf, the mountains in all directions, the view of Timp, the airport with the 7,000-foot runway, the best fishing lake in the state 30 minutes up Daniels Canyon, the clean air, the room to roam, the nice people, the excellent schools and teachers, the world-class skiing and hundred-dollar steaks and everything else next door in Park City, the rodeo, the cowboy culture, the easy commutes to Provo and Salt Lake City, and in case you might not have known it, the city recently passed an ordinance that spells out that every resident has the right to have chickens in their yard.

“Some people were concerned they were going to lose their chickens, so we made sure that won’t happen,” says Phillips, who was mayor when the ordinance was passed.

He finished his second term in office this past January. In all he spent 19 years in public service, first on the county Library Board, then the Planning Commission, then the City Council and finally eight years as mayor.

Heber’s problem while he was mayor is the same problem now that he’s not mayor: How does a place so popular stay the same?

How do you pay the steep price of progress?

“We’ve lost 30 dairy farms in the valley since I came here in 1982,” Phillips says, and then adds, “When I was mayor we always said of developers: They’re here for 100 days and what they leave lasts for 100 years.”

Exhibit A in that regard is the Wal-Mart that opened in 2009 on the south end of town. Quite a few of the people who wanted chickens in their yards didn’t want a big-box retailer. On the other hand, quite a few did. The debate divided Heber. It finally came down to a vote in the November 2007 election and the “Fors” won by 106 votes, 1,433 to 1,327 — 52 percent to 48 percent.

Wal-Mart has since brought in several more retailers as its neighbors in what has quickly become the business end of town.

On the plus side, you now don’t need to go to Provo or Salt Lake for sheets and shirts. And the sales-tax increase has enabled the city to continue its streak of not raising property taxes to 23 straight years.

On the minus side, people who keep track of such things, like livability.com, use such statistics to rave about the health of the economy — and there’s one less field that used to be a farm.

Or maybe the pluses are minuses and the minuses are pluses.

The irony is not lost on Dave Phillips.

“People around here, by and large — including me — would like Heber to look like it looked in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “They hear this latest news and go, ‘Cat’s out of the bag.’ But in the end what are you going to do, short of zoning out people? It’s such a desirable place to live. That’s why I came. Kinda hard to think that others wouldn’t think the same.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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