A Counter to Opponents of the Mountainous Planning District

Canyon lovers – your advocacy is working. According to the latest Salt Lake County Planning Commission agenda for September, the Mountainous Planning District is back on track… hopefully! What’s worrisome is that some canyon residents are trying to scare people with the idea that this is political theater. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The mountainous planning district idea can be distilled down to one thing – equal representation for a regional asset.

This past weekend, canyon resident and vocal opponent of citizens’ voices being represented in our canyons David Eckhoff, penned an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune that propogates the notion that canyon residents and business interests should have the ultimate say in the future of our canyons. We at Save Our Canyons believe that a more utilitarian approach toward management of this shared and treasured resource, regardless of what municipality or area of the county you reside in should have an official voice in deciding what happens in our Wasatch Mountains. Currently, only those who live in unincorporated Salt Lake County can serve on a Planning Commission that makes decisions and recommendations on land use issues in our watersheds. As more and more cities pop up along the Salt Lake Valley, or as they annex or expand into areas that were traditionally part of Salt Lake County, fewer and fewer live in the unincorporated areas of our community. Read more, click to view our post on the Mountainous Planning District.

But right now, we’d like to offer some counter perspectives on Mr. Eckoff’s assertions from his editorial over the weekend. We’ll paste the entire editorial followed with points. The piece begins by stating,

“The article “Canyons planning district is facing a time crunch,” (August 23) may have given the impression that we have an impending disastrous situation in our Wasatch canyons and that it must be addressed immediately by a brand new group of planning commissioners approved solely by the county mayor. Just what are these problems? There are few that are not already being addressed by a variety of public and private entities, which clearly prompts the question, “Why even propose this duplicative and very expensive concept of a Mountainous Planning District?””

First, Planning Commissions, including the one’s that are in existence today, are all nominated by mayors according to State Law. The nominees are then, appointed by the legislative body, in our case, the Salt Lake County Council. So to say these folks are solely appointed by the mayor is not entirely accurate. Over the years, there have been impending disastrous situations in our canyons: Snowbird’s rollercoaster on Mount Superior, the seven lot subdivision right below it, the development of commercial areas around Silver Lake, the permitting of seasonal rentals facilitating more development in our canyons, transitioning what once was a small community of seasonal cabins in to large mansions whittling away the wilderness, the incessant granting of variances from the ordinances to facilitate more development and encroachment into sensitive riparian areas that serve as natural filters of our drinking water… to name a few. As for the argument of cost, members of county boards are not compensated. These are volunteer positions that would simply convene a different group of volunteers (i.e. the Mountainous Planning District board, over the Salt Lake Planning Commission). There are no additional cost to doing this. It should be noted that there is a time crunch for this. This time crunch did not come about on part of our local county leaders, but our Utah Legislature. There are certain, corporate interests in our canyons who did not like the idea of a Mountainous Planning District for various reasons. As such the Utah Legislature placed a sunset provision into the legislation that established the Mountainous Planning District that made it go away one year after it was established. It is important, to get this district up and running prior to the legislative session so we can prove that this is a positive and innovative regional planning authority that needs to be extended in perpetuity in the upcoming legislative session. On the flip side, if its a disaster, then it automatically goes away.

Next, the author states,

“The Salt Lake County Planning Commission already has regulatory review authority over the three canyons. For decades this commission has adequately dealt with planning, zoning and development issues in the canyons. Their overview is all-encompassing, and their policies have been developed after securing input from a wide range of interests. In our opinion the Salt Lake County Planning Commission has done a commendable job. It makes absolutely no sense to push them out of the way and replace them with something that would do nothing more.

What legal measures already exist that are protective in nature? First of all, there is the overlying authority of the U.S. Forest Service, which has adopted the Wasatch-Cache Forest Master Plan. Salt Lake County, after extensive public participation, prepared the Big Cottonwood Canyon General Plan. The county also has zoning ordinances and regulations that are designed to protect both the land and the mountain streams. The Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ) includes very restrictive provisions regarding any development in the canyons. Then there is Salt Lake City’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, which gives the city immense overview of anything that might impact its water supply. So there are more than adequate measures to regulate uses and protect the environments of the canyons.”

Not only has the Salt Lake County Planning Commission dealt with issues in our canyons, they have dealt with issues all over our county. Did you know that there are probably ten or so zones that are relevant to canyon management in Salt Lake County? There are probably on the order of fifty (or more) zones relevant to broader Salt Lake County. Planning Commissions have a tough job (especially as volunteers), no doubt, but the establishment of a special Mountainous Planning District would allow for additional focus and emphasis, dare we suggest expertise, that can be brought to the conversations, where thoughtful and acute deliberations on the issues confronting the unique environmental concerns in the central Wasatch Mountains can be had. This is not to say that existing Planning Commissioners are inadequate, we’ll say that in some instances they have been, and perhaps even will be on the new Mountainous Planning District. This doesn’t solve the issue of appointees, but it does solve the issue of lack of representation for a regional asset. As our county demographics and communities change there should be some focused planning areas – the Mountainous Planning District accomplishes this.

“Some disturbing aspects of the proposed Mountainous Planning District are as follows. The way it was slipped through the Legislature is an excellent example of how to achieve legislation that might have limited support. The residents of the canyons were not consulted about this proposed legislation. Do you think that is good government? Lastly, the legislation was introduced by a legislator who is not from Salt Lake County. To us residents of Big Cottonwood Canyon, this entire process smacks of impropriety. Perhaps the most offensive feature of the proposed plan is that only one member of the proposed nine-member Mountainous Planning District Planning Commission would be required to come from the canyons’ residents. We view this as gross disenfranchisement.

Then there is the absolutely false insinuation that we — canyon residents and businesses — are either incapable or disinclined to protect the canyons. All one need do is to attend our monthly Big Cottonwood Canyon Council meetings to appreciate our wide-ranging concerns. We routinely grapple with issues like traffic choking the highway on weekends or providing more adequate recreational parking or planning for fire prevention (a huge concern for us) or working for more adequate bike lanes on the highway or cleaning up roadside trash (which we do every year).”

There are a lot of things to be disturbed about, but broader representation for an irreplaceable iconic landscape is not one of them. While the author states that only one of nine members are required to be canyon residents by the legislation, guess how many canyon residents are required to be on the existing Salt Lake County Planning Commission? If you guessed zero, you’d be correct. Further if canyon residents want broader participation on this board, they can request that the county ordinance that establishes the Mountainous Planning District have more than one spot for canyon residents. State law identifies the minimum, but the county could have a requirement for two, or three. We don’t think that defining too many is a good idea, because this could become a slippery slope for other interests to get a legislated seat and that any interest that is successful should have a conservation counter-balance.

To the issue of canyon residents and businesses – we have a number of members that fall into these categories who have supported our work for decades. There are many stewards of the canyons that have homes or property in the canyons. That said, there are also many nefarious interests in the canyons that Save Our Canyons is extremely concerned about. The concern for us is that just because someone doesn’t live in Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon, doesn’t mean that they too don’t care about these canyons or that they aren’t interested in volunteering their voice, vision and perspectives and participating on a body that deals with those very issues. The best decisions for this place is generally the one that reconciles, or at least recognizes, various interests. It’s not that canyon residents are not stewards, its just that they are not the only stewards.

“At each meeting we review with the respective agency representatives current law enforcement, fire protection and other agencies’ activities and issues. Proposals for new development are routinely brought to us for our critical evaluation and suggestions. We enthusiastically support Salt Lake City’s Department of Public Utilities in addressing issues of water quality impairment and overuse of our canyon environment.

In short, we work hard to keep our nest clean, but we are willing to share it. Everyone is welcome here, so long as they support our ethic of mutual responsibility and long-term sustainability.”

The Wasatch Mountains are different than other areas of our county, we’d say they are special. Special places deserve special treatment, and that special treatment is carried out in part by establishing a Mountainous Planning District. They are home to three federally designated Wilderness Areas, they receive over 6 million annual visits from locals and tourists, they are truly the gem of northern Utah and are deserving of diverse panel of interests to help ensure for their protection and careful deliberation. Our county, state, country, and world are changing – we need to innovate new ways to include diversity in our communities and the Mountainous Planning District helps accomplish that in part with an eye towards stewardship of a shared natural resource. We’ve participated on a number of county planning boards, most recently the Mountain Accord and the FCOZ Blue Ribbon Commission. The one thing that this board will do is force a working relationship for disparate interests. Working as volunteers on projects like that strengthens our community bonds and in our opinion not only leads to better decision making that transcends political appointments, but makes our community a more accepting and thoughtful place to call home.

One response to “A Counter to Opponents of the Mountainous Planning District

  1. many people agreed to the mountain planning district and mountainous planning commission. and then at the 11th hour, they start talking about allowing the existing county planning commission to morph into this hybrid. all of the reasons stated about, out the window. it was for years presented as a special planning commission for the mountain areas. and now they are going to force the people who serve of that commission to also over see, study, and decide the issues that are valley related. the county needs to have the 2 different commissions.

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