Anyone who still doubts the need to rein in cities that prefer large homes on large lots ought to have been at the E Center the other day. That's where a market analyst pronounced Utah's urban sprawl the worst in the nation.
We weren't terribly surprised by that. Urban sprawl has been a steady topic on this page of late. What was surprising, however, was that the speaker, Roland Robison, works for a home appraisal firm and that his audience was composed of planners, developers, lenders and Realtors. Apparently, the only group that doesn't understand this crisis is the politicians.State lawmakers again this year failed to confront the issue. The sum total of their efforts over the past three years has been to pass a law requiring cities to write strategies for providing affordable housing. These strategies are due at the end of this year, but don't hold your breath. Lawmakers didn't provide any penalties for noncompliance. Nor have they provided any incentives for compliance.
No, the job of confronting this enormously important issue rests with each individual city council and planning commission, and they are by nature more concerned with their own cities than with the state as a whole.
Robison put the problem in perspective. During the past five years - boom years by anybody's reckoning - Utahns have built about 100,000 new homes on 70,000 acres. That computes to an average of 1.4 units per acre. The national average is at least five to eight units per acre. At this rate, the urban Wasatch Front will grow by about 270 square miles during the next 20 or so years.
That means more traffic congestion, the need for bigger and better highways, more pollution and less open space - all the things Utahns ought to be working to avoid.
Some cities along the Wasatch Front have passed ordinances increasing minimum lot sizes. Apartments and starter homes are avoided at all costs. Young families are out of luck. The mayors and city council members have bought into the erroneous idea that large expensive houses make for better, safer neighborhoods.
Planners understand this isn't true. So do developers, Realtors and lenders. Fortunately, Gov. Mike Leavitt has shown by his recent speeches that he understands, as well. Now his leadership is needed to educate and persuade the rest of the state's politicians before it's too late.