Since 1997, Salt Lake County’s zoning ordinance, the Foothill and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ), has successfully been used to control development in the Wasatch Canyons.
FCOZ was initiated to create standards for development that would preserve the aesthetic qualities of the canyons, protect wildlife habitat and environmentally sensitive areas, and prohibit activities that degrade soils, slopes, and water quality. A 2010 poll conducted as part of Envision Utah’s Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow study found that 82% of the public supported FCOZ.
A strong ordinance enjoying a solid approval rating and a nearly two-decade long history of successfully protecting our canyons. Sounds like a sure thing to continue into the foreseeable future, right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, the ordinance that’s been so successful in protecting the canyons is now coming under fire from a few self-interested parties — namely ski resorts, developers, and a small minority of landowners.
The FCOZ ordinance requires that private landowners adhere to certain standards of development in order to protect water quality and curb aesthetic intrusions on the natural landscape. Some — but certainly not all — private landowners find this ordinance burdensome. However, there’s no doubt that for the overwhelming majority of us who don’t want to see the Wasatch further despoiled, a strong FCOZ is arguably both our best line of defense and the reason there isn’t considerably more development in the Wasatch. The ordinance’s protections are also the reason that the development we do see in the canyons isn’t more egregious. And that is exactly why certain parties are so incensed by the ordinances success.
FCOZ is comprehensive, governing everything from potential development near the wetlands and streams at the canyons’ bottoms, to building on the ridge lines at the canyons’ tops. While important in its entirety, there are a few key points critical to FCOZ’s success from a conservation perspective. These are: prohibiting development on slopes above 30 degrees (with some rare exceptions), limiting development near streams and wetlands, and wildlife protections.
All three of these major protections, as well as a number of others, are currently under attack during the FCOZ revision process.
Beginning in December 2015, a revised FCOZ draft was released for public comment. Almost immediately, lawyers for the ski resorts shot back with demands that the environmental protections enshrined in the 1997 version of FCOZ be significantly weakened. Ski resorts, the document complained, have to compete for customers in a regional market and so environmental and wildlife protections should be diluted in order to “level the playing field” for resorts. According to the ski resorts’ lawyer, Marty Banks, the strong environmental and water quality protections found in the original FCOZ aren’t fair because other resorts in the West can build more condos and shops without being inconvenienced by such environmental protections.
Ski resorts, chiefly Snowbird, seem to have forgotten that unlike other resorts they’re located in the middle of a productive watershed that provides a majority of the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents in the valley below.
In order to “level the playing field,” lawyers for the resorts demanded they be allowed to build on steeper slopes, severely cut the distance between new buildings and streams and wetlands, permit for more lighting and significantly taller light poles, and concede to more building development near canyon ridge lines.
The suggestions made by the resort’s lawyer were then incorporated in the draft ordinance. The new draft also stripped wildlife protections, removing important references to the value of protecting critical wildlife habitat from development. Perhaps most alarming, in order to appease resorts and private property owners this latest draft substantially altered the purpose statement of FCOZ.
The original purpose of FCOZ drafted in 1997 was the following: “To promote the health, safety, and public welfare of the residents of the county, and while being cognizant of private property rights, to preserve the natural character of the foothills and canyons by establishing standards for foothill and canyon development proposed in the unincorporated areas of the county.” The most recent version of the new purpose states: “To promote safe, environmentally sensitive development that strikes a reasonable balance between the rights and long term interests of property owners and those of the general public.”
Notice a difference? Comparing the original FCOZ with the revised draft is like substituting the preamble from the Declaration of Independence with wishy-washy language about perhaps the rights of men being inalienable and Life, Liberty, and the pursuit Happiness being reasonable goals but maybe they should be balanced with or deferred to the desires of King George. You know, in the interest of striking a reasonable balance.
The Mountainous Planning Commission recommended this draft and forwarded it to the Salt Lake County Council for consideration. This fall, the County Council will have the final say, deciding whether the nearly twenty-year-old FCOZ ordinance will continue protecting the watershed, wildlife, and unparalleled recreation experiences found in the Wasatch Canyons or if those protections will be sacrificed to the whims of developers and ski resorts.
Expect to hear more from Save Our Canyons about FCOZ in the coming weeks. For the most up to date information on our campaigns click the “Get Involved” tab on our website at www.saveourcanyons.org. We’ll send you a couple updates a month with the latest information and how you can help save our canyons. Don’t like email? Like us on Facebook. There you’ll get all the updates and some pretty pictures of the Wasatch thrown in to make the policy stuff more palatable.