In late August, the Utah Quality Growth Commission served as the latest forum for the seemingly never-ending debate between Salt Lake City water officials and private landowners over watershed management issues. Private landowners have continually claimed that Salt Lake City’s “over-zealous” watershed protection has severely limited the landowners’ ability to develop their property in the Cottonwood canyons.
Utah Quality Growth Act of 1999
In 1999, the Utah Legislature passed the Quality of Growth Act. The Act was intended to address the myriad issues created by the “rapid growth of population and housing in Utah, particularly within the grater Wasatch area.” As a result, the Act was aimed at “create[ing] new opportunities for local governments seeking to preserve open lands.” According to the Legislature, “The Act supports critical land conservation, home ownership, housing availability, efficient development of infrastructure and efficient use of land. The act applies to cities and counties on a purely voluntary basis, and mandates nothing.”
Utah Quality Growth Commission Membership
As part of the Act, the Legislature created the Utah Quality Growth Commission, which consists of approximately 13 members that are appointed by Governor and approved by the Utah Senate. Membership of the Commission consists of:
1) two persons at the state government level, one of whom must be from the Department of Natural Resources; 2) six elected officials at the local level, three of whom must be nominated by the Utah Association of Counties and three of whom must be nominated by the Utah League of Cities and Towns; 3) one person nominated by the Utah Home Builders Association; 4) one person nominated by the Utah Association of Realtors; 5) two persons from the agricultural community, nominated by Utah farm organizations; and 6) one person selected from the private profit or nonprofit sector. Commission members are appointed to four-year terms, with a limit of two consecutive terms of service.
Utah Quality Growth Commission Authority
Pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 11-38-202, the Utah Quality Growth Commission has the authority to:
1) make recommendations to the Legislature on how to define more specifically quality growth areas within the general guidelines provided to the commission by the Legislature; 2) advise the Legislature on growth management issues; 3) make recommendations to the Legislature on refinements to this chapter; 4) conduct a review in 2002 and each year thereafter to determine progress statewide on accomplishing the purposes of this chapter, and give a report of each review to the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee of the Legislature by November 30 of the year of review; 5) administer the program in this chapter; 6) assist as many local entities as possible, at their request, to identify principles of growth that the local entity may consider implementing to help achieve the highest possible quality of growth for that entity; and 7) fulfill other responsibilities and duties imposed by the Legislature or this chapter.
The Utah Quality Growth Commission is also responsible for administering the Utah’s LeRay McAllister Critical Land Conservation Fund, the funding of which “shall be used for preserving or restoring open land and agricultural land.” The Commission’s board is overseen by Chairman David Mansell, a real estate agent, and Logan City Councilwoman Holly Daines.
Utah Quality Growth Commission Takes Up Watershed Issue
Pursuant to its authority under the Quality Growth Act, the Utah Quality Growth Commission has purportedly taken up the watershed issue in anticipation that the Utah Legislature may seek input from the Commission during its next session if the Legislature decides to revisit Salt Lake City’s authority over canyon lands outside the city’s boundaries. As set forth by the Commission:
Water is the lifeblood for Utah’s economy and quality of life. Without water, this growth is impossible. Because we are growing so fast, we must become better stewards of our limited water resources. For this reason, The Commission recently undertook an effort to evaluate how the watersheds in Utah are managed and in particular, the granting and application of Extra Territorial Jurisdiction by the state to Cities of the First Class (A City whose population exceeds 100,000) and other issues.
Save Our Canyons Takes Issue With Commission’s Involvement
However, the Utah Quality Growth Commission’s voluntary involvement in the watershed management battle has not necessarily been well-received. An email from Save Our Canyons to its members, titled “Attack on the Watershed,” asked the members to turn out against “a little known state organization struggling for funding and battling to remain relevant [that] is taking aim at Salt Lake City’s watershed protections.”
Others opposed to the Utah Quality Growth Commission’s involvement in the watershed management issues have accused Commission staffer John Bennett of being the pocket of developers. In a memo to the other members of the Commission, Bennett said that even though he had “been accused of being in the pocket of developers,” he believed the commission was justified in speaking up because of its “responsibility to look at how to promote growth on a quality basis and how to conserve lands.”
“The reason I was willing to go down this path is that this commission is uniquely charged at looking at the tension between conservation and development,” Bennett added.
Salt Lake City’s “Extra-Territorial” Agreement With the Utah Legislature at Heart of Watershed Issue
At the heart of the watershed issue is an “extra-territorial” agreement between Salt Lake City and the Utah legislature, which Bennett said during the recent Commission meeting, effectively gives Salt Lake City veto power over land-use decisions in the Cottonwood canyons, even though those canyons are outside the city’s boundaries. Bennett added that frustration has grown on the part of communities such as Sandy and Millcreek, who are currently looking for ways to annex parts of the canyons and ski resorts.
“The issue is: How do we resolve this tension between people who want to recreate and protecting the watershed? Those two things are both critical, and we need to figure out a way to achieve that,” Bennett said.
Salt Lake City Criticizes Commission’s Statements Made During Commission Meeting
However, not everyone agreed with Bennett’s characterization of things during the meeting. For example, Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City’s public utilities department, took issue with what she said were “many” inaccurate statements made by Bennett, as well as others, at the meeting. Among those inaccurate statements, Briefer said, was the “implication that it’s a relationship of conflict” between Salt Lake City and other communities. Briefer also said Bennett and others improperly implied that Salt Lake City does not invest in the Cottonwood canyons’ infrastructure. Above all, Briefer said she was “frustrated” by what she heard from the Commission during the meeting.
Opponents of Salt Lake City’s Control Over the Watershed Accuse City of Having Monopoly on Water
Those opposed to Salt Lake City’s control over the canyons, said they felt like Salt Lake City was holding a monopoly on water, and that it was unfair to subject Salt Lake County residents to ordinances or other regulations put in place by an elected body the residents did not vote for. For example, Kyle Buxton, a landowner and irrigation company supervisor in Big Cottonwood Canyon, said during the meeting that he and his family have been personally cited 38 times over watershed issues in just the past three years.
In addition to Buxton, canyon property owners Evan Johnson and Norm Henderson, irrigation company president Paul Southam and Dave Robinson, a negotiator for several property owners and Republican candidate for Salt Lake County mayor, laid out a litany of complaints about how city water officials unfairly stymied their ability to use their lands.
Evan Johnson, an owner of a ski-in/ski-out lot near Cecret Lake, told the Commission that Salt Lake city had cut-off his access to water and devalued his property. “The watershed regulation is abused and we’re bullied,” Johnson said. “ My property is inside four water districts, and I can’t get a drop of water. I can’t get any water because Salt Lake City told them not to service me.”
Salt Lake City Fires Back at Landowners
In response to the landowners’ complaints, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said, “It feels like some sour grapes over decisions you didn’t like in the Mountain Accord process and failed litigation efforts,” and the Utah Quality Growth Commission had provided the landowners “a place to have a pulpit.”
Commission Adjourns Hearing Without Deciding on Any Formal Recommendations
Following the contentious debate between canyon landowners and Salt Lake City officials, the Commission, which has no regulatory power, adjourned the meeting without deciding on any formal recommendations. Even still, Briefer was not too excited about one of the recommendations the Commission said it might consider: eliminating Salt Lake City’s extra-territorial jurisdiction entirely and turn over water management authority to counties.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this recommendation,” said Briefer, who added that she has concerns about counties’ ability to manage critical water resources. Still, she added, Salt Lake City’s public utilities department is “happy to listen.”
“We have a lot of collaborative relationships in our watershed management,” Briefer said. “To me, that’s the bottom line.”
Commission Issues Draft Report
In a blog post, the Utah Quality Growth Commission states that it “has spent the last couple of months reviewing the management of [U]tah watersheds and related issues. Most of our work has focused on the management of the Wasatch Canyon Watersheds.” As part of those efforts, the Commission has produced a draft report to the Legislature.
Who Will Ultimately Control the Watershed?
While it remains to be seen what, if anything, the Utah Quality Growth Commission will recommend to the Legislature regarding the battle between Salt Lake City and canyon landowners over watershed management, the Commission has placed itself firmly in the middle of the fray between the parties. It will be interesting to see what role the Commission plays in the upcoming legislative session if the Legislature takes of the watershed issue. Without any formal regulatory authority, the Commission will likely serve as a consultant for the Legislature, who will ultimately decide if control of the watershed will remain in the hands of Salt Lake City, or if it will be left to the individual counties or other municipalities.
Photo Cred.: sltrib.com