Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, points out the location of the proposed 8,800-unit Olympia development on a map at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 11, 2018. Though officials have agreed to negotiate changes to the development near Herriman that's sparked outrage, concerned residents say a proposed referendum is a "plan C" if talks fall through.

HERRIMAN — The Olympia development may be a mammoth housing and commercial project that — like Oz on a western horizon so distant it would catch the morning sun even later than Daybreak — would lure about 30,000 people into mostly high-density housing on a 930-acre swath of unincorporated desert west of Herriman.

But it is so much more.

For one thing, it is a test that could determine how Salt Lake County looks generations from now.

At first, the Salt Lake County Council had a touch of defiance in the way it voted, 7-1, to rezone the land. But by Tuesday afternoon, those seven apparently had heard the protests and read about the citizen petition that, if successful, could put the zoning issue to a public vote.

They decided to put the item back on the agenda next week. Who says government never listens?

Sometimes, slowing down makes sense. That’s especially true when the decision could set the tone for the future.

Get this wrong and the consequences could multiply — and I’m not just referring to how this has become an election issue in the 4th Congressional District.

If people feel they haven’t been heard; if the new development causes roads to fail, energy costs to rise and schools to bulge in nearby cities, voters are likely to double down. In coming elections they would choose leaders who reject high-density housing at all costs.

They would point to the monstrosity and warn that nothing like that can happen again. And while they might feel good about themselves and their civic involvement, housing costs would continue to soar and homes would sprawl.

But get it right and the project could serve as a template for high-density growth.

That’s all. No pressure.

Why is this bellwether? Because even in a fast-growing metro area, Olympia sounds like a development on steroids. It would stuff nearly 8,800 housing units onto 930 acres — a density the Deseret News estimated at 32 people per acre.

Neighboring cities point to an engineering study that estimates how many roads would fail because of the increase in traffic. Herriman Parkway would need to become a seven-lane road east of 6400 West. Other roads would need to be widened, as well.

Sewer and water districts would be affected, as would schools. And where would the garbage go?

It seems only polite for the county to wait until it can get together with all the people downstream and figure out who is paying for it all, and how, or to decide it might be best elsewhere.

And there is one more big reason why it’s important to get this right: It won’t be the last time something like this comes up.

Because, make no mistake, people are coming. Projections from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah estimate Salt Lake County will grow by 600,000 people between now and 2065. Utah County will grow by more than 1 million. Many of these people will settle in and around the southern end of Salt Lake County and the northern end of Utah County, the so-called Silicone Slopes high-tech corridor.

You can’t squeeze 1.6 million more people into that area and give everyone a quarter acre.

But more than just planning for people who are coming, local leaders need to realize a lot of people already are here. The demand for housing along the Wasatch Front has outstripped supply. You may have heard stories about neighbors who barely get the “For Sale” sign into their lawn before multiple offers pop up like toadstools after a rain. The Census Bureau reported recently that Utah’s housing growth last year, at just over 2 percent, led the nation.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Wasatch Front is on course to rival San Francisco for housing costs. Once you get behind on demand, it’s hard to catch up, but you can’t catch up without affordable high-density housing.

Often, people who live in suburbs say something like this: “I moved out here to get away from the congestion of the city. I don’t want apartment buildings in my neighborhood.”

As they often find out, that’s a lot to demand for a quarter acre.

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Bart Barker, a former county commissioner who now is general manager of the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District, supports Olympia, in part because it would be a planned city, “not an unincorporated, sprawling community,” as he told the Deseret News.

He’s right about planned growth trumping haphazard sprawl. We already have seen enough of that.

And while, admittedly, I can’t say what a workable solution to the Olympia project should look like, I know it’s vital to find it.

Doing so probably won’t make the next project any easier. Failing could make it nearly impossible.