Utahns' drive to build more single-family homes on large, suburban lots is feeding a bad case of urban sprawl that could destroy the state's environment, a housing market analyst said Tuesday.

Roland Robison, an analyst with appraisal firm Free and Associates, said growth-related problems still do not have the full attention of Wasatch Front residents, developers and governments.Speaking to about 65 planners, developers, lenders and Realtors as a part of the "Game Plan 98" housing seminar at the E Center, Robison said new home construction remains strong in Utah. And although it may level out this year, he said, the state is not prepared for steady growth.

Under current zoning ordinances, Robison said, Utahns have built about 100,000 new dwelling units on about 70,000 acres of land over the last five years. That gives an average of 1.4 units per acre, he said.

Nationwide, Robison said, most urban areas average at least five to eight units per acre.

"This represents horrible urban sprawl, the worst in the nation by far," he said. "Contrary to popular opinion here locally, low density is not maintaining our quality of life. It's absolutely destroying it."

Tom Davis, president of Partnership Properties, agreed.

"These municipalities that are increasing . . . the (minimum) size of the lot are out to lunch," he said. "Increasing the size of lots does not necessarily ensure a good neighborhood."

At the current rate of construction, Robison said, more than 273,000 acres of land will be used for 380,000 new dwelling units by the year 2020. The state's urbanized area will grow from 320 to 590 square miles.

Free and Associates' "Decision Systems" analysis of Utah's major housing markets shows that the total number of lots recorded during the fourth quarter of 1997 in Salt Lake County was down 52 percent from the same quarter of 1996. During the same period, the number of recorded lots was up 24 percent in Utah County and 27 percent in Davis County.

In Tooele County, the study said, recorded lots skyrocketed from 177 in the second quarter of 1997 to 334 in the fourth quarter.

Davis said part of that shift is due to the high price of land in Salt Lake County. The estimated average cost per acre along the Wasatch Front has increased from about $8,000 in 1988 to $40,500 in 1998, he said.

"Salt Lake County no longer is a Mecca for affordable housing," he said.

Robison said increased development in outlying areas means more people will have to spend more time in their cars on congested roads in order to get to work. And that means less open space and more air pollution along the Wasatch Front.

The problem already has resulted in irreparable damage, he said. But developers and municipal governments have a chance to develop a new respect for the land, get people out of their cars and promote developments that increase residential density without sacrificing lifestyles.

"The planners know the problems," Robison said. "Who we need to educate are the city councils and the mayors."

Robison said an Urban Land Institute study has shown that 82 percent of new-home buyers are environmentally sensitive and will pay more for well-planned communities.

"We're not paying attention," he said. "We have got to, as an industry, start looking at the critical issues we're dealing with."