Rising sharply over this quiet upscale community, away from freeway traffic and noise, Maple Mountain has become almost like a shrine to some residents here.
Now the potential of realizing financial gain from the mountain looms without anyone turning a spade of dirt.A proposed ordinance would allow landowners to separate their right to build on the mountain and transfer it to less fragile land in Mapleton. In fact, said city zoning official Bill Jones, the ordinance detailing the transfer of development rights may extend to anyone who owns property in town.
"I can't see any restrictions of where it could be applied," he said.
Most of the ground on Maple Mountain is sandy and loose - not stable enough to support a house. But landowners could carve out about 60 home sites along the nearly four-mile stretch of foothills. Much of the bench area is private property, yet hazardous. It holds the potential for flooding, mudslides and earthquakes, City Councilman Stuart Newton said.
No one lives on the serene mountain, but century-old trails lead to it and up its steep slopes. From there the broad expanse of Utah County, including Utah Lake, spreads out below.
Development rights are usually sold to builders. The ordinance offers no information on how to dispose of those rights, but Newton said the market usually determines their value.
City officials want to keep it open and undeveloped and are considering tempting owners with promises of from two to four development rights on the valley floor in exchange for giving up the right to build on the mountain. It is designated officially as a critical environmental zone but still has the potential of home construction, Newton said.
The proposed ordinance would give two development rights in exchange for one to four rights if the landowners deeded the property to the city. Applying the ordinance is voluntary.
Landowners would have to apply for a zone change, and then their land would be declared a conservation easement. If owners elected to keep their land they could continue to use it as it has been traditionally used - for grazing, Jones said. A zone change would also be necessary to cover the land where the building right would go, because of its effect on density.
Building in a critical environment zone poses difficult red-tape barriers. For example, noted Jones, before a building permit would be issued, property owners would have to file reports with the city that detail geotechnical, soils and natural conditions and vegetation and fire protection. A grading and drainage plan would also be necessary.
The ordinance would protect the "bundle of rights" people own when they buy private property. People have been selling some of those rights for years, mostly water and mineral rights.
Newton said the ordinance will allow housing density to increase in areas to where rights are transferred - possibly even double or quadruple. Those areas haven't yet been defined, but the council is considering an overlay zone that would limit density and spread it around. The city Planning Commission is also studying how much density would be allowed in these "receiving areas." The "sending areas" are also undefined, although Maple Mountain is the most notable target.
By permitting property owners to sell or transfer their building rights, the council gains a popular goal - preserving the openness and beauty of the mountain. Some 100 counties and cities in the country already have development transfer ordinances in place, designed to create open space, said Newton. The market determines how much those rights are worth, although it's too early to tell what their value will be in Mapleton. But in other areas of the country they are worth from a few thousand dollars each to prices Newton described as "fantastic." Some in Florida go for millions, he said.
"They're worth whatever the increased density is worth," he said, which would give a developer the right to build from two to four houses, where he would have been limited to just one.
"It's the only practical way of preserving the mountainside from development," said Mayor Richard Young. The only question he has is what density bonus will be granted to developers. The ordinance will likely pass at the City Council meeting Tuesday before that density bonus is determined.