Utahns overwhelmingly like the idea of preserving rapidly dwindling open spaces for future generations. They also are passionate about preserving private-property rights.
And therein lies the political and economic paradox facing Gov. Mike Leavitt and other champions of open-space preservation. With only limited amounts of undeveloped land remaining along the Wasatch Front, any effort to preserve that open space will limit the amount of land that could be developed into housing, driving up housing costs even more."I am a passionate open-space advocate, but there is one thing that could cause me to want an alfalfa field to become a subdivision. That is if my daughter or my son had to leave the state because they could not afford to live here because the cost of housing is so high," Leavitt said.
Which is why "open-space advocates have to be part of the housing solution or ultimately the open-space movement will be overtaken by more basic needs like housing," he added.
Leavitt, who elevated open-space preservation to one of his top priorities during a much-ballyhooed 1995 Growth Summit, would appear to have public support on his side.
According to a Deseret News poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, 83 percent of those polled strongly or somewhat agree that open spaces should be set aside now for future generations. Only 10 percent disagreed.
When they were asked if they felt private-property owners should be allowed to do what they want with their own land, zoning permitted, 88 percent said definitely or probably. Only 8 percent said no.
Leavitt predicts the open space discussion will gather momentum in the years ahead, particularly as the Wasatch Front becomes more congested. Since 83 percent of those polled believe in the concept, it won't be long before lawmakers also grasp the significance of it, he said.
Nevertheless, "it is not something that will ultimately be fought out in the state Legislature," Leavitt said. "The state has a role, certainly, to provide leadership and provide technical help and participate in some projects. But open spaces will be defined at the local level."
And local control of the issue can be a curse.
Some city councils have been reluctant to modify zoning laws to allow for creative solutions to the open space need vs. the housing problem. Some are proceeding with plans to allow single-family houses on plots of one acre or larger - something Leavitt insists is "a very serious mistake.
"If local communities use the power of planning and zoning to ensure nothing is built in their community but brick homes with three-car garages, where are the young families and those with moderate incomes going to live?" he asked.
"It is not the role of the state to step in and do planning and zoning. But unless local communities step up and begin to take their individual responsibilities, it could well become the role of the state to apportion that responsibility," he said, adding "I hope that will not occur."
But if it did, Leavitt might find public support. According to the Deseret News poll, 46 percent of those polled believe the state should take the lead on the open-space issue. Only 22 percent believed it was the role of city or county governments.
Leavitt is confident it won't come down to the state using its political might to force cities and counties into an open-space preservation mind-set. Rather, he would prefer a combination of gentle persuasion and incentives through which the state would be "partners" with the local governments.
"The state alone cannot do it. Local government alone can't do it. The private sector alone should not be expected to shoulder the entire burden," he said. "I believe the mantra of the 21st century will be local control, central coordination. That will ultimately be how we solve this."
Despite the public support for open-space preservation, Leavitt has fought an uphill battle with the Utah Legislature over the past three years to enact laws and set aside funds toward that end.
Lawmakers, who have been fearful that open-space preservation might encroach on private property rights, this year bowed to pressure by Leavitt and created a loan fund for open-space projects. But they appropriated only $100,000 to the fund - a paltry amount, given the billions of dollars being spent on highway infrastructure - and they specified the money cannot be used to acquire farmland.
Leavitt has ordered the various departments of state government to identify surplus state lands that could be sold, the proceeds going into the revolving loan fund (another $100,000 could soon find its way to the fund if an anticipated sale is consummated).
But the governor isn't about to get into a fight with lawmakers over the proceeds of land sales, insisting he would only transfer the money to the loan fund after serious consultations with legislative leaders. That may perpetuate the agonizingly slow process, but it avoids a direct fight with legislative leaders who have openly resisted Leavitt's open space initiative.
The poll of 600 Utahns was conducted March 6-11 by Dan Jones & Associates and has a 4 percent margin of error.
Deseret News Poll
Do you agree that open space should be set aside now for the future?
Strongly agree 62%
Somewhat agree 21%
Somewhat disagree 7%
Strongly disagree 3%
Don't know 7%
Who do you feel should be most responsible for taking the lead on the open-space issue?
The State 46%
Counties and/or cities 22%
No one 1%
Private Land owners 11%
Don't know 11%
When it comes to open-space. . .Do you feel private land owners should be allowed to do what they want with their own land, zoning permitted?
Probably not 5%
Definitely not 3%
Don't know 5%
This poll of 600 Utah residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Mar. 6-11, 1998. It has a margin of error of +/- 4 percent. Copyright Deseret News, 1998