Utah’s most built out city, Taylorsville, feeling the squeeze finding ways to house more peopleFeb 09, 2024 03:46PM ● By Carl Fauver
The seven-member Taylorsville Planning commission includes (L-R): Don Russell, David Wright, Cindy Wilkey, Don Quigley, Mark McElreath, Lynette Wendel and Gordon Willardson. (Courtesy Don Quigley)
Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox found several opportunities to interject humor into his annual “State of the State Address,” on Jan. 18. But he also found moments to be deadly serious.
“I believe the single greatest threat to our future prosperity is the price of housing – period,” Cox said. “Housing attainability is a crisis in Utah.”
He then went on to explain how his office plans to deal with the challenge over the next half-decade.
“I have proposed the ‘Utah First Homes Program,’ with the audacious goal to build 35,000 starter homes in the next five years,” Cox added. “My focus is on affordable, attainable, single-family, owner-occupied, detached housing.”
That goal likely has a lot of Utahns excited – including members of the Taylorsville Planning Commission. However, because our city in the heart of the Salt Lake Valley is already so built out, several commission members are already openly wondering what will happen next.
Nine-year Planning Commission member Lynette Wendel is concerned about what state lawmakers have done already.
“The State Legislature keeps taking authority from local planning commissions,” Wendel said. “The state is eliminating public hearing requirements in some cases. But public comment is essential to the process. We anticipate more changes will come out of this year’s legislative session. We want to make sure our citizens continue to have a chance to speak out – to ask for the character of their community to be preserved.”
While Wendel is one of the longest-serving members of the Taylorsville Planning Commission, newly elected Chair Cindy Wilkey is the newest. She too is concerned the state’s effort to fast-track more Utah housing is creating challenges.
“I’ve served on the Planning Commission since January 2022 and was vice chair last year,” she said. “Utah Senate Bill 174 is pro development. It attempts to shorten timelines for developers and reduces the number of public hearings required for certain projects. Now, when we have a public hearing, we have to be ultra-prepared and ultra-thoughtful, because we only get one shot at it.”
The Utah-based Libertas Institute describes itself as a “nonprofit think tank and educational organization.” It claims SB 174 “streamlines the process for property owners who wish to subdivide their land and build homes. When a property owner wants to subdivide their land, the review and approval processes will contain one public hearing.”
Taylorsville City Long Range Planner Mark McGrath works closely with planning commission members. He too is keeping a careful eye on Utah’s Capitol Hill.
“The legislature has stepped into the land use game at an unprecedented level in the past three to four years,” McGrath explained. “Legislators are concerned planning commissions along the Wasatch Front are limiting growth. There’s no doubt we are in a housing crisis. The legislature is passing laws to streamline the building process. A lot of things that used to require public hearings no longer do.”
McGrath said city planning commissions still maintain broad control over land use through zoning. But he’s also hearing concerns the state may seek to take control of that someday, as well.
“The Salt Lake-Ogden-Provo corridor now has about 2.7 million residents – and is projected to grow by another 1.5 million in 40 years,” McGrath said. “This is why there is such a struggle now over land use. Demand is only growing.”
Former Taylorsville Planning Commission Chair Marc McElreath adds, “Lawmakers want to make zoning and land use laws more consistent across the state; but this can tie the hands of planning commissions and city councils.”
The now longest-serving member of the Taylorsville Planning Commission (by just a few months over Lynette Wendel) is Don Quigley. He too joined the body in 2015.
“Taylorsville is poised for a very interesting, but bright future,” Quigley said. “Financing issues have slowed growth in the city recently. When demand returns, I believe we are in a position now where Taylorsville’s next mode of growth will be vertical. But I don’t see a need for growth above six stories in our city. We are working hard to maintain our communities.”
Another Taylorsville Planning Commission member who weighed in on the issue is landscape architect David Wright.
“Recent state legislative items have significantly impacted the Planning Commission,” Wright said. “In some cases, the legislature has restricted the number of public meetings we can have regarding certain projects. We have had no problems with this; but there is a potential for problems. There could be reckless development if we don’t keep an eye on it.”
Wright views the change through an interesting analogy.
“I feel like the Planning Commission is being minimized,” he said. “If we were a football team, instead of starting on the offensive line, I feel like the commission is now on special teams. We don’t have as much control over the outcome of the game as we once did. Gov. Cox says his goal is to get more affordable housing more quickly. I believe this goal can cause troubles.”
However, despite the varying level of concern among several Taylorsville Planning Commission members, Mayor Kristie Overson is not wringing her hands over Utah housing growth pressures.
“We keep a careful eye on the bills passed by the legislature,” she began. “Last year, some bills passed that forced us to modify our General Plan, to be sure we were current and compliant. But we are doing our best to preserve our (zoning) codes and ordinances. We will preserve our neighborhoods.”
Overson believes Cox’s push for more “starter homes” will be a good thing for Taylorsville.
“We have plenty of ‘first homes’ in our city,” she said. “They aren’t new homes; but they are comfortable, smaller first homes. Our Planning Commission is correct in the assumption the governor and legislature are pushing for more housing. But I am not panicked about it. When projects are proposed, the city always has the option to hold more public meetings. We are conscious of our residents. They will continue to have a strong voice.”
Before her current stint as mayor – and her time on the Taylorsville City Council – Overson spent 11 years on the planning commission herself. Despite this current push by the legislature to create more affordable housing in Utah, she believes the current body will be able to face any new challenges.
“Our Planning Commission works well and makes wise decisions,” Overson concluded. “They are well-educated people who have served on there for a long time. I am confident in their ability to oversee community development.” λ