With growth gobbling open space along the Wasatch Front at seemingly exponential rates, Utah Republicans have a politcal Achilles heel that Democrats are moving to exploit. At the least, Utahns should expect the issue to be part of the political discussion this year, and that is good.
State GOP legislative leaders have, despite prodding by the governor, stood idly, fiddling while the state's agricultural and pristine lands are brimming with development. A conservative philosophy of keeping government out of private-property issues has thwarted any incentives for preserving green space.In fairness, their blatant lack of leadership mirrors the divided will of most Utahns. Many in this state are concerned about a declining quality of life but readily scream "hands off" should anyone suggest alternatives to laissez-faire development. A Deseret News poll showed 83 percent of Utahns agree that open spaces should be set aside now for future generations. It also indicated, however, that 88 percent feel private-property owners should be able to do what they want with their land.
Enter the Democrats.
Looking for an edge and with nowhere to go but up, Utah's junior party is attempting to seize the moment. Standing at the base of Ensign Peak Monday, party leaders and candidates promised a "viable, working urban open space" program. Most of the details are forthcoming, though it could include a 10-year, $200 million bonding program to purchase and preserve land along the Wasatch Front.
That is not unlike a measure proposed during the last Legislature that died without much fanfare. Republicans quashed a modest bill granting citizens a simple tool to preserve farmland in their communities if they wished to do so. It included no mandates, nothing heavy handed. Yet it went nowhere.
Projections indicate that by 2050, the 10-county area from Nephi to Brigham City will be home to 5 million people. The only way to adequately set aside enough open space in Utah is for the state to set the agenda and to begin requiring it through appropriate incentives and widespread master planning.
Cities and counties should control their own planning and zoning decisions, but there must be coordination and stronger leadership on the state level. The governor and Legislature are the ones to direct the larger growth picture now, before the state loses much of what makes it unique and attractive.
Regardless of whether Democrats succeed with this campaign issue, the pressing need to manage growth and preserve open space ought not become overly politicized. It is too important for that. Both parties ought to be talking about solutions. At least now the electorate can rest assured the topic won't be ignored during this election season.