Salt Lake County at the crossroads

The Salt Lake Valley’s Wasatch Mountain backdrop. Photo by Todd A. Draper.

The Salt Lake Valley’s Wasatch Mountain backdrop. Photo by Todd A. Draper.

by David J. Gellner, AICP, and Todd A. Draper

Salt Lake County is very excited to be hosting the joint Western Planner and APA Utah Chapter Conference this fall being held in Salt Lake City from Sept. 30 through Oct. 3. Our area has experienced tremendous growth in recent decades, and we are poised to continue growing at unprecedented rates. Despite these trends our goal remains to acknowledge and accommodate that growth without sacrificing our small town feel, compromising our available resources, or impacting our quality of life. These issues are not unique to us and, in fact, are being experienced by many communities across the western United States, at varying scales, but for remarkably similar reasons.

Why Physical Geography Matters

Map of Salt Lake County incorporated and unincorporated areas
Source: Salt Lake County Planning & Development Services.

The Salt Lake Valley lies on the narrow Wasatch Front corridor between two mountain ranges; the Oquirrh Mountains to the west and the Wasatch Mountains to east, both rising to several thousand feet above the valley floor. In terms of physical geography, the area is both blessed and molded by it and indeed in some ways even trapped by it. These physical barriers along the Wasatch Front corridor constrain a majority of the growth within the Salt Lake Valley and at the same time provide some advantageous opportunities for establishing and sustaining cities. This unique geography affords residents unparalleled recreational access and opportunities; helps generate abundant mountain snowfall that provides the “lifeblood” water in this arid region; provides a naturally occurring growth boundary; and facilitates robust transportation linkages along this corridor. The geography does, however, create challenges in terms of air pollution and other physical and environmental constraints.

Public Visioning and Planning

Fortunate to have a community generally supportive of planning efforts, the Salt Lake Valley area has received kudos as being an epicenter for regional collaboration efforts over recent decades. Some recent and notable efforts have included the Wasatch Choice 2040, Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow, and the newly emerging Mountain Accord initiative, a multi-phase project that seeks to holistically evaluate and address issues on the topics of environment, recreation, transportation, and economy within the central Wasatch Mountains of Utah. The effort is envisioned to be collaboration between public and private interests with public involvement as an ever-important cornerstone of decision-making and process guidance. More information about the Mountain Accord project can be found on the website:  www.mountainaccord.com.

Home to the American Dream

 Hiking and outdoor recreation opportunities abound in the Wasatch Mountains of Salt Lake County. Photo by David J. Gellner, AICP.

 Hiking and outdoor recreation opportunities abound in the Wasatch Mountains of Salt Lake County. Photo by David J. Gellner, AICP.

Salt Lake County is home to just over one million residents living in 16 incorporated cities, six distinct townships and a variety of unincorporated areas spread across almost 750 square miles of land area. The area also has great diversity in urban, suburban and rural developments, landscapes, and world class recreational opportunities. Economic opportunities also abound, and it was no surprise to locals when the Equal Opportunity Project named Salt Lake City as the #1 place to achieve the American Dream. The greater Salt Lake Valley is a place where you can take TRAX light rail directly to and from Salt Lake City International Airport, ride a high-speed Front Runner commuter train, enjoy a performance by nationally recognized Ballet West, watch a professional or international sporting event, enjoy world-class skiing or hiking in our beautiful Wasatch Mountains, play a round of golf, and even ride a horse. The area truly lies at a unique “crossroads” where the modern age meets the Old West. This dichotomy is also reflected in the governance structure and the functions of Salt Lake County government.

Salt Lake County Government Functions

In 2000, Salt Lake County voters decided to replace county commissioners with a mayor/council type of government. Today the county mayor is an elected position that runs the executive branch departments such as public works, but does not have authority over other county elected officials like the county council, sheriff, district attorney, etc. Additionally the county mayor does not have authority over the other city mayors in the area.

Salt Lake County government functions in dual roles as both a municipal provider to unincorporated areas and townships and as a regional entity and service provider. Much of its role as a municipal provider is codified at the state level under the County Land Use and Development Management Act (CLUDMA), which is the county-level counterpart to the city-level Land Use and Development Management Act. These legislative provisions deal with general land use authority issues and guide and limit how municipalities or counties may regulate land use matters. State law also mandates the development of general plans, the minimum elements that must be contained in such a plan, and, the powers and duties of the planning commission. While the county has no land use control over the incorporated cities, it does provide many regional level services and strives to foster collaborative planning efforts among the varied jurisdictions.

Regional Governance and Municipal Services

Low density housing in Emigration Canyon Township. Photo by Todd A. Draper.

Low density housing in Emigration Canyon Township. Photo by Todd A. Draper.

As the municipal government for the citizens in the unincorporated areas including six distinct townships, Salt Lake County provides day-to-day governance and support such as road maintenance, planning and zoning, building, code enforcement and other activities that citizens have come to expect from their “city government.” At the same time, the county, through its numerous divisions, provides a variety of services for the benefit of all the citizenry on a more county-wide basis. These important services include the operation of parks and recreation centers, snow-clearing, road maintenance, and programs for the elderly and at-risk children to name a few.

The county also participates in shared regional services such as the Unified Fire Authority, the Unified Police Department and the Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District, a recent spin-off formed from the Salt Lake County Sanitation Division. The services provided by the county have a far reach into many aspects contributing to the high quality of life in the Salt Lake Valley, although many citizens might not even realize that fact. More important, many of these county-wide services benefit from the economies of scale that a regional approach offers, providing advanced services and functions that may not make economic or logistic sense for a smaller municipal entity to take on alone.

This duality of “wearing two hats” so to speak is often confusing to residents and can also create barriers to effective governance. The area’s leaders often have to ask “Who am I representing today?” in terms of dealing with even routine issues that arise. When making day-to-day decisions, the question becomes important. If a decision benefits all Salt Lake County residents but does so at the expense of individual communities or unincorporated areas of the county, then, what is the right decision? This leaves the leaders with the conundrum of deciding how to prioritize resources, knowing that someone or some group will inevitably feel slighted in the process.

Evolution of County Government

Clean water. The clean water flowing out of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah is the most important canyon natural resource today. Photo by David J. Gellner, AICP.

Clean water. The clean water flowing out of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah is the most important canyon natural resource today. Photo by David J. Gellner, AICP.

In order to address the confusion of this duality in 2013, County Mayor Ben McAdams created the Office of Township Services and the position of Director of Regional Development for Salt Lake County to provide a clearer separation in county governance in terms of municipal and regional service functions.

The primary function of the Office of Township Services is to provide municipal services and support to about 160,000 residents and more than 4,000 businesses in the unincorporated areas and townships. McAdams created the Regional Development Director position to better address Salt Lake County’s role as a premier regional government and to help direct and take a stronger lead in issues that affect the entire county, including coordinating the actions of county agencies with those of city governments. Township Services and the Regional Development Director report to the county mayor.

As the Township Executive who operates like a city manager position, Patrick Leary leads the Office of Township Services. According to Leary, the county has historically had many unincorporated areas that are densely populated and mostly residential, but have largely been left behind in terms of economic development and infrastructure. These areas have not been annexed into neighboring cities, and, in some instances, the residents have largely opposed that happening on the basis that they are happy with the character of their communities as they currently exist and don’t want to lose their established individual identity. Leary advocates for “a focus on economic development activities” for the unincorporated areas to make them more economically self-sustaining and viable, with Township Services being “a voice for residents” and “cognizant en­tity” to represent them.

Regional Development Director Carlton Christensen indicates that the current situation “is not a viable long-term strategy” as the county continues to grow and mature. As such, efforts are now focusing on achieving a balance between maintaining the status quo of independence offered by the current structure and the benefits of incorporation. It is a delicate balancing act and a challenge to be sure.

On a regional basis, Christensen desires that the “county be effective as a convener and partner in a variety of areas aside from the mainstay parks and aging services that have traditionally been county functions.” He goes on to describe the development of a framework for shared regional services in other areas that might be viable options and that “may be the last option for self-determination.” Of course there are some downsides to regional collaboration which include the difficulty of expanding to match growing needs, and the role that local politics play when trying to merge efforts for the “greater good.”

Ongoing regional efforts include the Cooperative County Plan, which is a multi-year project that is designed to focus on county-wide issues such as economic competitiveness, resource management, land use planning, and the environment. The core vision of the plan is to develop and provide the tools to aid local jurisdictions and unite land use planning within Salt Lake County, while still maintaining individuality within each city and township. The Cooperative County Plan is a step toward opening the dialogue toward solving planning issues together.

Come experience Salt Lake County for yourself in 2014

As host for the joint Western Planner and APA Utah Chapter Conference this fall, we would love to have the opportunity to show you more of our county and the environment we live and work in. Many of the issues we collectively face with other communities in the Western Planner network have common themes, causes and other similarities. We have much to learn from each other, and we welcome the open dialogue and opportunities to learn from one another.


David J. Gellner, AICP, is an Environmental and Land Use Planner with Salt Lake County. He serves on the Western Planning Resources Board. Todd A. Draper is a Land Use Planner with Salt Lake County.


Published in the April/ May 2014 Issue

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