Loved to Death: A story of sustainability planning in Utah’s Wasatch Canyons

Residential Housing in Emigration Canyon Township, Utah. Photo by David J. Gellner, AICP.

Residential Housing in Emigration Canyon Township, Utah. Photo by David J. Gellner, AICP.

by David J. Gellner, AICP, Salt Lake City, UT

Rising majestically and standing like sentinels, the Wasatch Mountains of Salt Lake County form the scenic backdrop to the populated base of the Salt Lake Valley and give the region a unique “geographic identity.”  The Wasatch Canyons present seemingly boundless opportunities for people to recreate, relax and find a respite from the pressures of everyday life.  In this way, they add significant value to the quality of life for residents and visitors alike.  The value of these Canyons goes far beyond that however.  The Wasatch Canyons comprise the largest primary watershed for a large portion of the Salt Lake Valley, so in essence, they are the very lifeblood of this semi-arid region.    

Although the majority of land in the Wasatch Canyons is managed by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, it is not the only governmental agency that has jurisdiction.  In fact, a myriad of agencies have overlapping jurisdiction and regulations within the Wasatch Canyons.  Salt Lake County has jurisdiction over private property in the Canyons; Salt Lake City has extraterritorial jurisdiction over protected watershed areas; and, various state agencies have some regulatory authority.  These overlapping jurisdictions often create confusion from a land management perspective and frustrate property owners within the Canyons. Moreover, they create confusion for the agencies themselves, sometimes leading to regulatory conflicts and disagreements.     

With high level of public and private uses, Wasatch Canyons bring into focus the intersection of competing interests. Story by David J. Gellner; Photo courtesy of Envision Utah.

Given their proximity to a growing urban population and the level of public and private uses of the area, the Wasatch Canyons bring into focus the intersection of private property rights, commercial and private recreational uses, environmental concerns, watershed issues, tourism demands and other competing interests.  This “intersection of interests” is often crowded, and there are few easy answers to address these competing pressures.  The level of use demands, in concert with rapid population growth, have many worried about the sustainability of this resource.  As a result, the concern over the future of the Canyons has been the impetus behind several efforts to study this critical regional asset.   The goal of these efforts is to formulate new ways to balance development, recreation opportunities and the preservation of these treasures for the significant intrinsic value that they provide. 

The popularity of recreational uses has grown steadily over recent decades.  The 2002 Winter Olympic Games, hosted by Salt Lake City, increased awareness about the available recreational opportunities in the Wasatch Mountains and made the area a draw for recreational visitors.  The Olympics highlighted the Salt Lake Valley as a destination for outdoor activities and helped to increase recreational uses in the Canyons by both visitors and residents and strengthen the “outdoor mountain culture” of the area.   

In terms of growth, Utah has a healthy economy and has maintained positive growth, even during the recent economic downturn.  With that economic prosperity has come an increase in population through people migrating to the state.  More significantly, Utah has a relatively young population and an above-average family size, which translates into a growing population base.  By many estimates, the population of the four Wasatch Front counties (Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Utah counties) is projected to increase 65 percent by 2040, adding another 1.4 million residents to the region.  This growth will undoubtedly put additional strain on the Canyons in terms of recreational demands and impact the clean lifeblood water coming from the Canyons.  This precious resource will grow evermore valuable and necessary to sustain the areas that depend on this water source. 

SCENIC BEAUTY: Cardiff Fork Watershed Area of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Photo by David J. Gellner, AICP.

Salt Lake County has land use authority over private property in unincorporated areas of the county.  This includes significant areas of the Wasatch Canyons, including commercial ski resorts in both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons and private properties which support both seasonal homes and a year-round population.  From a land use perspective, Salt Lake County has been dealing with a number of contemporary development trends on private property.  Some of these include a preference for larger and more year-round canyon homes, constrained building lots, and increased demands for services and infrastructure.  All of these trends have spin-off effects which impact the existing balance of competing uses and development patterns in the Canyons.  

More year-round residences and a growing canyon population translate into an increased need for critical infrastructure and services.  The county has seen this demand in the realm of fire protection services and facilities.  In the last five years, the Unified Fire Authority has built a new fire station in Emigration Canyon and completed the permitting process for a new station in Big Cottonwood Canyon to replace an un-manned station.  The Big Cottonwood Canyon fire station is expected to open in 2012.  While the growing population and number of year-round canyon residents have not yet translated into an increased demand for commercial services, the possibility remains that this demand could arise in the future.    

The issue of larger houses together with constrained building lots creates a number of related impacts and issues.  Many of the private lots in the Canyons were historically created and platted in a “flat paper world” without considering the existing topography and environmental constraints of the land.  These “lots of record” were often small, reflecting their use as sites for small seasonal cabins.  Some lots were established as “tent lots” which were narrow lots intended for recreational camping, a common occurrence in parts of Emigration Canyon.  

In recent times, there has been a preference for much larger seasonal and year-round homes.  When the preference for larger homes is combined with these historic lots, there are spin-off issues.  Putting a larger house on a site that would have adequately accommodated a typical cabin of yore may push development into constrained areas of a building site.  This may include encroachment into modern stream setbacks, something that was not seen as a worrisome issue when many lots were established.  In order to recognize and honor existing property rights, ordinance variances may be necessary to accommodate modern development desires.  These variances are often fraught with conflict by opposing sides and may be seen as an “end-run” around existing regulations by the public.  As such, they can create political outcry that must be addressed.  

So, what initiatives are Salt Lake County and other partners pursuing to ensure that our Canyons are not “Loved to Death” by the very populace that values them? Starting in 2008, Envision Utah, together with Salt Lake County, initiated the Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow (WCT) vision project.  Key partners for this effort included the Forest Service, the State of Utah, and Salt Lake City. The overarching goal of WCT was to assess what the citizens of Utah value about these areas and to develop guiding principles for the future of the Wasatch Canyons.   The WCT involved a public process that took place over a period of 18 months and included 16 open houses.  Over 16,000 survey responses were received during this process.  The effort included Executive, Steering and Technical Committees made up of stakeholders, experts and others.  These committees were formed to ensure process integrity and that recommendations accurately represented public input. 

Based on the recommendations of the WCT, a number of initiatives are now underway by Salt Lake County in conjunction with other partners.  These efforts are outlined here. 
Mountain Transportation Study:  Salt Lake County received a U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grant for this study to examine and identify transportation and public access improvements in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons across all seasons.  Study recommendations are expected in late 2012. 

Wasatch Canyons Parking Study:  

This study examines parking needs in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, creates an inventory of existing parking spaces and areas, assesses needs and identifies seasonal differences in use and problem areas.  This study involves the communities adjacent to the Canyons which become the “catchment” areas for traffic when the Canyons are crowded or closed due to avalanche control work or other issues.    

Millcreek Canyon Transportation Feasibility Study:  

The National Forest Service received funding through a USDOT program for this study.  The U.S. Forest Service asked Salt Lake County to manage the funds and study given their long partnership related to the canyon road and access. Millcreek is commonly referenced as the “locals canyon” by the Forest Service.  While Millcreek Canyon does not have ski resorts, it is a popular year-round destination for outdoor recreation activities.  It is often crowded and there are conflicts with uses and parking.  This study will examine the feasibility of transportation alternatives given the existing physical and institutional constraints of the canyon.  Recommendations are expected in the fall of 2012.

Wasatch Watershed Legacy Partnership (WWLP):  

This partnership effort kicked off in May 2011.  Pilot projects were chosen in five National Forest areas to demonstrate effectiveness of public/private partnerships in protecting critical watershed areas.   The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest was one of the areas chosen for this program. The goal of the WWLP is to enhance protection of watershed areas in light of increasing pressures from a growing population base and increased recreational uses.  This project involves the Forest Service, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, ski resorts, and the State of Utah and is still evolving. 

Salt Lake County Zoning Ordinance Revisions:

This project critically examines how existing Canyons regulations work when dealing with contemporary issues.  The ordinance governing development on private property in the Wasatch Canyons within unincorporated Salt Lake County is the Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ).  Adopted in 1997, FCOZ addresses development in environmentally sensitive areas, to provide for protection of watershed areas, and to preserve the natural character of those areas.  Given the time that has passed since adoption, the county is looking at this ordinance in terms of “How is this working in the here and now?” based on experience with administering the ordinance.  In doing this, the study will not only be looking at present issues and trends with land use regulations and development in an area but also have an eye toward the future development of those areas and the impacts that development could have on the greater region.  Salt Lake County has created a 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission to guide the FCOZ ordinance revision process.  Members of this volunteer commission are representative of a variety of community groups and will provide leadership throughout the revision process, keeping public input as their primary focus.

Valley View: The Salt Lake Valley’s Wasatch Mountain Backdrop. Photo by Todd A. Draper. 

Valley View: The Salt Lake Valley’s Wasatch Mountain Backdrop. Photo by Todd A. Draper. 

Wasatch Canyons Today:  

This project is the latest initiative that Salt Lake County is pursuing in order to plan for the future of the Wasatch Canyons.  Borrowing from interest generated by Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow (WCT), the Wasatch Canyons Today project seeks to create a dialogue and translate the big-picture recommendations of the WCT into implementable strategies at the ground level.  Wasatch Canyons Today looks to bridge the gap between WCT’s big picture view to identify practical and achievable strategies at the ground level and the nuts and bolts mechanisms of implementing those strategies.  Wasatch Canyons Today will bring together many of the partners and stakeholders that participated in WCT, starting a productive dialogue and taking the next step toward protecting the beloved Wasatch Canyons for the generations that follow.   

The Wasatch Canyons sustained the pioneers that settled in the area by providing them with the water and natural resources necessary for their survival.  Today, these same canyons continue to sustain us in many other ways.  The popularity of these amenities along with the myriad of competing interests and anticipated population growth have many concerned for the future of our Wasatch Canyons.  Concerted and deliberate efforts on multiple fronts will undoubtedly be necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of these treasures for the benefit of future generations.

David J. Gellner, AICP, is a planner with Salt Lake County.  His work for Salt Lake County includes coordinating development projects located within the Wasatch Canyon areas of Salt Lake County. He is currently leading the development of the new General Plans for the canyon areas.

Published in the October/November 2012 The Western Planner

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