Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Daria Runjaic, left, and friend Charlotte Burke hike in Mill Creek Canyon. Springtime weather brings out the hikers, bikers, walkers, and many others to the Wasatch front canyons Sunday, March 25, 2012
The canyons lie at a busy intersection of interests. It's easy to get run over. … The question is how to strike a reasonable balance, a balance that will continue to evolve. —County planner David Gellner

WEST VALLEY CITY — A panel discussion Monday tackling the thorny issue of how best to manage the resources in Salt Lake County's Wasatch canyons emphasized the value of compromise and the reality of inevitable disappointment.

But despite the competing interests of ski resort owners, environmentalists, water bosses and government planners represented at Wasatch Canyons Today Symposium in West Valley City, it was clear everyone believes the current zoning document is inadequate, outdated and unclear.

"We need management by conscientious pubic policy, rather than by ad-hoc waivers," said Martin K. Banks, representing ski resorts. "Nobody likes the waiver system."

The gathering was the first step by county officials to overhaul the Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ), adopted in 1997 to manage canyon resources. FCOZ establishes zoning restrictions via the angles of slopes and proximity to streams or wetlands — except as allowed by waivers granted by the appropriate zoning board or regulatory authority.

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said the problem with FCOZ is not what it is, but what it isn't. While the first page of the document speaks to protection of the canyons, watershed and the natural environment, he said "the remaining 29 pages provide ways to get around those standards."

Because development proposals under FCOZ are determined on a case-by-case basis, the playbook for what is allowed and what's prohibited is anyone's guess, Banks added,  giving rise to uncertainty.

"The public needs predictability," he said.

Snowbird's desire for a mountain coaster propelled the inadequacies of FCOZ front and center last summer after two Salt Lake County boards issued contradictory decisions on if it was a permitted use. Last week, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon outlined a 10-step plan to revise the ordinance, including the appointment of a Blue Ribbon Commission drawing on the input of a variety of stakeholders.

At Monday's symposium — which kick-started the months-long process that addresses issues such as transportation and watershed protection — participants spoke of the need to incorporate planning unknowns like climate change, yet have a document in place with more certainty.

While zoning restrictions are crafted with an eye toward flexibility, county planner David Gellner said the problem is being able to bend with change without getting flattened.

"The canyons lie at a busy intersection of interests," he said. "It's easy to get run over. … The question is how to strike a reasonable balance, a balance that will continue to evolve."

Jeff Niermeyer, director of Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities, said the Wasatch canyons risk being "loved to death" by population growth and an increase in tourists who want to play at the ski resorts or venture into the backcountry.

Without a firm hold on what happens in the future, Niermeyer said he worries the canyons could be degraded to a condition once experienced by City Creek Canyon, which was shut down for a decade in the 1950s and 1960s because it was so overused.

"We have this burden of humanity crushing upon its resources," he said, speaking to the mountains' vulnerability in light of such pressures. "We need to have an ordinance in place to provide sustainability and resiliency."

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