It’s a tough time to be in the role of an elected leader in a fast-growing community along the Wasatch Front. The task is balancing the interests of developers proposing new high-density housing projects and the desires of long-time residents to preserve their neighborhoods as they are.
The latest outbreak of intra-city tension is happening in Sandy where a city council vote has kept alive plans to develop as many as 100 townhomes on a 9-acre parcel previously zoned only for commercial use — a project many citizens have protested, and one that was countered by the city’s own planning commission. It is another example of the irresistible force of demand for new and affordable housing colliding with the immovable determination of neighboring homeowners to resist changes they see as detrimental to their environment.
Similar conflicts have played out in Herriman, West Jordan, Holladay and elsewhere, and will continue to surface as a growing population and rising property costs put a strain on the valley’s housing stock. Each city has its own set of rules and agency structures to handle growth, and each has a body of elected officials torn between the desire to keep constituents happy, and the duty to help plot economic development.
There are three indelible realities that all sides of these conflicts need to acknowledge and, somehow, accommodate.
First, the demand for high-density housing in the Salt Lake Valley is not going away. The population is growing and a bulging generation of millennials is in the stage of life in which people settle down, find long-term domiciles and raise families.
Second, there will always be resistance to change among those already comfortably settled in communities, who view their long-term residency as a license to assert control over new development. Their concerns deserve respectful consideration.
Third, government leaders can not perpetually pass the buck when these conflicts arise. They are going to have to do their best to plod through the process in a fair and open way, and at the end of the day, arrive at a final determination based on the best interests of the community at large.
That doesn’t seem to be happening at this point in Sandy. The council deferred a decision on the zoning question by voting to initiate a process to “negotiate a development agreement.” Exactly what that means isn’t clear, but frustrated residents see it as a move to kick the conflict down the field. Tensions will certainly arise again, depending on what is “negotiated.”18 comments on this story
As they wrangle through these conflicts, civic leaders must prioritize the process of educating residents on the precise need and impact of new development. Too many times, residents feel their voices aren’t being heard in lieu of the hefty influence of development interests. Also, too often, residents react out of misapprehension as to how a new development will exactly affect their neighborhoods, and they tend to discount the benefits of such development for the broader community. The “not in my backyard” impulse is strong and automatic.
For civic leaders, an avenue for a “win-win” solution in such squabbles may simply not exist. Their only course then is to work toward a process that is inscrutably inclusive and transparent, leading to a final decision that even those opposed will regard as fair and just.