Head for the Hills | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Head for the Hills 

Developers square off against fired up residents in southwest Salt Lake County.

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  • Jennifer J. Johnson

In Greek mythology, Mount Olympus is the ultimate low-density neighborhood. It's the airy, cloud-swept home to merely a dozen gods and goddesses who float along and determine the fate of humanity.In the current tale of the proposed Olympia Hills high-density development, elected leaders and NIMBY residents of Salt Lake County's southwest valley (aka Southwest Quadrant) feel caught up in another bit of mythology.

This real-world tale, they contend, is akin to the fates of ancient Greece's measuring—then snipping—threads representing human life and death.

Area residents and elected officials alike recognize the enormous master-planned community's potential to compromise the quality of life for current and future generations in the Southwest Quadrant. They see a growth-hungry state and compliant county council feeding the beast with a mandate to build affordable housing in an area already challenged in terms of transportation service and infrastructure.

Situated between 6300 and 8500 West and 14000 and 13100 South, Olympia Hills is just about as far south-by-southwest as possible in the county footprint. It is deemed a 25-year buildout. (For reference, the famed high-density planned community Daybreak is less than two decades old.)The development would total 6,000-plus units on 900-plus acres, using undeveloped land in unincorporated Salt Lake County. As a stand-alone strip-community, it could potentially outpopulate sprawling, rambler-marked areas like Holladay, which recently handily stomped on its own high-density project—a remake of Cottonwood Mall.

It's the second attempt to push through the project, which originally was vetoed by then-county mayor Ben McAdams in 2018. About the only thing that supporters and detractors agree on is that the development could best be described as "Daybreak on steroids."

Developers, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce evangelists, Silicon Slopes tech company entrepreneurs and the state's economic development machine interpret that description as a positive. But constituents of Herriman, Riverton and other southwest communities view it as unnatural and absurd. However, these concerns are not provable, community developers say. They are words spoken through attorneys, versus those of former project frontman Doug Young, who shepherded the public-comment phase of the project.

Young is the colorful developer who some Herriman residents charge as the schemer behind over-promising and under-delivering on projects such as the "Anthem" development (part of "Herriman Rising"), the unfortunately named "Farmgate" apartments near Daybreak, and even projects in Utah County, which have gone belly-up.The revamped Olympia Hills proposal, project attorney Bruce Baird says, successfully addresses 13 concerns the council cited, handily addressing sprawl, while delivering parks within every half mile and providing a walkable, work/live/play environment.

Pitched in the summer of 2018 as a 9,000-plus unit community, the project sailed through the county council 8-1. The lone holdout was councilman Steve DeBry, who represents West Jordan, Riverton and Herriman—three of the six southwest cities which challenged the project. Constituents' voices were enough to sway McAdams to do an about-face.

Olympia Hills 1.0, however, solidified Southwest Quadrant leadership, who, recognizing that their common goals stretched beyond being united against the project, huddled weekly during last year's legislative session to leverage a unified voice. This collective body—the "Southwest Mayors Council," comprised of elected leaders of Bluffdale, Copperton, Herriman, Riverton, South Jordan and West Jordan—has continued to meet regularly on everything from Olympia Hills to synergistic municipal business development.

Last week, the county council held the first of two public hearings to vet the development's Phase 2 request to alter the area's agricultural zoning to high density. The first meeting was held in council chambers at the government complex on 2100 South. It was a snoozer, filling the room to less than 20% capacity.

The second meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 28, at Copper Mountain Middle School, is unique. According to the county, it represents the first time the council has visited a specific community to vet a development proposal.While Round 1 was relatively tame—in terms of attendance and resident steam—all parties are gearing up for what observers say is sure to be a likely battle. There's a veritable swell of citizen protest against the project which sees it as undermining a fragile suburban ecosystem.Critics note the area is buttressed by the Oquirrhs, accessed by a two-lane state highway and unconnected east-west road networks. And it will place even more pressure on skinny north-south systems, which the Legislature has not prioritized and which voters—shying away from the governor's proposed gas and food tax—seem unwilling to underwrite.This second public hearing literally brings the county council into the heart of a community—whose fiery commitment to douse Olympia Hills' brand of high density gathered thousands of signatures that initially brought the project to its knees.

Emboldened by their collective agenda, the mayors were awarded $250,000 to conduct the "Southwest Visioning Study" to help best plan the area's destiny.The only catch? The mayors had to include Salt Lake County at the table and are now in clock-ticking mode to deliver the results.

Additionally, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has moved from voting council member for Olympia Hills 1.0 to either the rubbber-stamper or veto authority for Olympia Hills 2.0.In June 2018, Wilson, then an at-large council member, was one of eight council members to vote to approve the much higher density project—and via policy manager Weston Clark—vociferously campaign for the project.Now, Wilson is a peer constituent in the study and effort to present a unified vision to develop the Southwest Quadrant.

If the first meeting is any indication for what the officials will hear at the next one, residents are concerned about the area's connectivity with the rest of the county.

"We need a Manhattan Project for transportation along the Wasatch Front," Draper resident Mary Corcoron said, addressing the council last week. "I am unclear why everyone in this room is not beating down the Legislature to get [this]. It is bigger than this one issue."

"I like the concepts, but the big problem is connectivity—you're not going to walk to the airport," Riverton resident Neil Spencer observed.

Comments from southwest valley officials like West Jordan City Councilwoman Kayleen Whitelock, Herriman Mayor Jared Henderson and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs employed terms like a "fallacy," and "too much density," to describe so-called affordable housing in the area. They asked to await the study's results.

"It's the same old thing, over and over again," county councilman Jim Bradley shared with City Weekly, speaking of a perceived rehash of similar arguments standing in the way of relentless growth.

For his part, in studying Olympia Hills 2.0, Bradley, along with most of the councilmembers, recently participated in a drive-about of the area (council chair Max Burdick did not attend). It was hosted by newly dubbed citizen group Utah for Responsible Growth—a collective that organized following the initial signature-gathering effort. Stressing it is "not anti-Olympia Hills," the group contacted council members to help them best understand unique infrastructure challenges of an area few, perhaps, were familiar with or whom had even seen.

From Baird's perspective, though, the status is hardly same-old, same-old. "[This project is] the most thoroughly researched, most thoroughly vetted, most thoroughly considered application in the county," he said.

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