BRIGHTON — Two years ago after the session ended, Gov. Gary Herbert penned a terse, two-paragraph letter to the Legislature's GOP leadership to express his frustration to "once again" extend the life of what he said should have been a one-year commission created in 2015.
"I strongly urge Salt Lake County to complete the work this commission was intended to accomplish expeditiously and state that I will not agree to extend the sunset of this commission again," Herbert wrote.
It's now 2019, and the law creating the Mountainous Planning Commission is set to sunset, or expire, on June 1, 2020.
SB187, now amended, extends the commission's life to 2021 and awaits passage in the House after the Senate approved it Monday.
It remains to be seen what Herbert will do, because this has a lot of complexities — with powerful politics at play.
The bill has the potential to chart the destiny of the newly incorporated town of Brighton and affect transportation in the narrow canyons that receive more visitors than Utah's five national parks combined.
The purpose of the commission is to consider the central Wasatch Mountains as a "regional resource," with long-range planning and policy, made up of members from Salt Lake City, Sandy, Cottonwood Heights, South Jordan and the canyons. As the unincorporated area of Salt Lake County continues to shrink, the law creating the commission allows for any registered voter to have a seat at the land use decision table — including decisions in the canyons.
The discord around the legislation to continue the commission is evident, however, heard in the bitter words offered March 8 by the senator who ran the original bill in 2015 establishing the Mountainous Planning Commission.
"Since that time I have heard nothing but complaints about abuse, bullying, failure to follow procedures for open meetings (government records). I am embarrassed I ran this legislation," Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said.
Wilf Sommerkorn, director of regional planning and transportation for Salt Lake County, told Weiler during a Senate committee hearing last week he may have been confusing the commission with Mountain Accord or the resulting Central Wasatch Commission. Weiler didn't rebuke him, however, and Herbert's own concerns are evidence there's trouble aloft.
Plenty of representatives from area community councils have a long list of complaints about the Mountainous Planning Commission, pointing to tactics involving the newly incorporated Brighton and the continuing push to keep the commission alive when they say its authority is unprecedented.
Sommerkorn, in an interview with the Deseret News, said the commission's planning work has been tangled up in political fights involving water rights, canyon developments and misunderstandings he says unfairly link into the Mountain Accord planning process.
"This is not some nefarious operation," he said.
Quid pro quo?
In early October, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office advised Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Rick Graham that by state law, it would be illegal for the county to use general funds to provide police and fire services in Big Cottonwood Canyon should residents of the Brighton area vote to incorporate.
In November, residents of Brighton did just that, tired of having little say over their destiny.
Barb Cameron, head of the Big Cottonwood Canyon Community Council, was a leading proponent of incorporation and like her husband, Bob, felt there was too little accountability from Salt Lake County on how canyon-generated revenues are spent.
Cameron learned, too, that incorporation meant the tiny community of just 260 residents that supports around 2 million visitors a year would soon be without police or fire protection.
During the campaign leading up to incorporation, she noted in a press release the fear and concern regarding public safety.
"Voters are concerned, however, that the county mayor said he will likely withdraw public safety subsidies from Big Cottonwood Canyon if Brighton incorporates. It’s a serious threat that’s causing discouragement among voters, and alarm among public safety organizations," she wrote.
"Most of those services are, in fact, used by visitors, not locals. The burden of providing public safety for the 1.7 million visitors should be a cooperative project, especially since the canyon provides so many tax, tourism and recreation benefits to the county and the state of Utah."
In a February email this year, Barb Cameron told her colleagues that then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams had offered to create a regional service agreement for public safety funding if the Mountainous Planning District's sunset provision was extended during the session. The commission would lapse the same day Brighton would officially become a town.
"It would be irresponsible for us to ignore a solution to the problem of 260 residents providing health and safety funding for 2 million visitors," she wrote.
But the dominion of the Mountainous Planning Commission has been widely criticized since its inception because of its membership, land use authority and more recently because of the new dynamic with the incorporation of Brighton.
"This commission sets a bad precedent. When we begin to allow planning commissions that are made up of people who do not live in the area being planned, we start down a slippery slope," wrote John Bennett, a former staff member of the Quality Growth Commission, in emails to state lawmakers during this session.
"The new town of Brighton is under a lot of pressure to give up their right to manage their own land use. Salt Lake County is conflating two issues that don’t need to be conflated in order to put pressure on the new town. I think it is bad for the town of Brighton, and it is a warning sign of what might happen in other municipalities in resort areas in the future," he noted.
During the Senate hearing March 8 on the sunset proposal, Greg Schiffman from the Granite Community Council likened the Mountainous Planning Commission to a dismissive parent that gets to do what it wants to residents because of its lack of accountability.
"(They are) a planning commission stacked with residents living outside the area and they are determining land planning for that area. Strong-arm tactics," he continued. "We have a Salt Lake County mayor who wants to control land use so badly that they threatened a 70-year-old woman, the community council chair, that if she doesn't give up land use planning, her residents will be straddled with millions each year to pay for safety and emergency services."
Critics say passage of the bill will put the state of Utah at odds with itself over zoning authority.
On one hand, a municipality is required to have a zoning authority, or a planning commission, in place. Brighton will set up a planning commission for its residents, but to what avail?
The law establishing the Mountainous Planning Commission says any municipality established within its boundaries has no jurisdiction over land use unless it came into being prior to 1971.
Paulina Flint, the mayor of the White City metro township, said another thorny problem needs to be solved when it comes to county financing.7 comments on this story
In the early 1990s, there were about 311,000 residents in Salt Lake County who lived in unincorporated areas. Now there are about 12,000. General fund monies cannot be used to pay for emergency services in those cities. This includes emergency management services required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Each municipality is required to appoint a person to manage disasters. Since becoming a municipality, the metro township lost these general fund dollars.
Townships, Flint said, have lost that service and with Salt Lake County only looking at Brighton's situation, she noted, "That's not right. That's an ethical dilemma."