Guest opinion: The discomfort of growth – what residents say they need to ease the heartburn

We can manage growth or growth will manage us.

The population of Utah is expected to double by 2050. What will that mean for current and future neighborhoods? What about our transportation system, water and sewer infrastructure, and public safety facilities? What about our schools, employment opportunities, and access to the great outdoors? What about the ability of family members to live here and the preservation of our unparalleled quality of life?

The membership of the Utah League of Cities and Towns hear and consider these real questions every day. We represent the 1,380 mayors and council members who are the government closest to the people and the most accessible to residents. Mayors and council members ran for office in order to make tough decisions that affect our daily lives.

We talk to our constituents at the grocery store, at church, and at our kids’ schools and we listen to their opinions at our city council meetings. When growth related challenges are on the agenda, our public hearings often run deep into the evening. Cities work to promote and preserve a sense of place in our communities, which means we are on the front lines of growth challenges. In fact, our membership unanimously endorsed a resolution at our Annual Convention this year about the keys that cities hold to prepare for growth. While there is a perception that the “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) philosophy is dominating the dialogue and stopping all development, most residents have reasonable concerns about the impacts of growth.   

In order to understand what is driving the anxieties of residents about growth and housing, we partnered with Wasatch Front Regional Council (a metropolitan planning organization) and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce to conduct a survey by Y2 Analytics. We held four focus groups in the southwest part of Salt Lake County and surveyed 2,213 residents in the nine fastest-growing counties in the state. We discovered some noteworthy and nuanced insights.

First, 63% of Utahns believe that Utah is growing too quickly. When ranking the most important issues facing communities today, housing affordability is followed by air quality, water, education, and infrastructure. All of those issues are related to growth.

Second, we dug deeper and learned that Utahns are most concerned about the potential and actual growing pains that affect their neighborhoods and their day-to-day lives. Driving their anxieties the most are the perceptions of or the actual: 1) lack of planning and infrastructure, and 2) broken promises. Residents are frustrated when expectations or promises about traffic mitigation, new parks, or other community amenities are unfulfilled. Rightly or wrongly, they are frustrated with developers for not delivering the amenities that they promise to the community. They are frustrated with local government leaders for not holding developers accountable for those amenities. Market conditions play a role there too. In our focus groups and our outreach, we’ve heard countless examples. Utahns are not necessarily opposed to growth; they are opposed to a failing of foresight and follow through.

Third, while residents are frustrated by the growing pains, they do understand the benefits of growth. The Y2 data shows that the majority of residents recognize that sufficient housing options that are affordable are critical to facilitating economic growth. Likewise, the majority of respondents recognize that a diversity of housing types is a positive because people are in different stages in life with different needs. The majority of residents want children and grandchildren to be able to afford to live in our communities.

The research thus shows that NIMBY should actually mean “nuanced-in-my-backyard.” We need to respect the residents and their reasonable concerns about the future of their communities. After all, they are the taxpayers, the home buyers, the employees, and the secret sauce of strong communities. Our residents, like mayors and council members, are part of the city long after a home itself is built. That means that we must consider the long-term sustainability of the city–including transportation, housing, access to jobs, police officers, fire fighters, schools, water, sewer, recreation, and affordability–when we plan for growth.

We respect the fact that each community is unique, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to planning for Utah’s growth. We recognize that nostalgia is not a long-term policy and that change is inevitable. As city leaders, ULCT is committed to working with state policymakers, developers, stakeholders, and residents to plan for growth in responsible and sustainable ways. Cities work best when state officials, local leaders, property owners, and residents respect the roles we each play, and collaborate to reach a positive outcome.

Jon Pike is ULCT President and Mayor of the City of St. George.

Cameron Diehl is Executive Director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns