Utah's rapid growth rate is fueling strong development pressures that may irreversibly alter the economic standing and social character of local communities, said Robert Lilieholm, College of Natural Resources professor at Utah State University.
Population in Utah is expected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years, and as development pressures mount, Utahns are voicing concern over the loss of once abundant open space.
This concern makes a recent study conducted by Lilieholm and Charles Fausold of Cornell University especially significant.
Lilieholm and Fausold said that decisions about growth and development take place at the community level.
"Unfortunately, community leaders and municipal planners often lack up-to-date information about tools available for ensuring that growth complements, rather than detracts from, the community," said Lilieholm.
Many zoning tools can be used to protect open spaces, such as setting specific lot sizes per dwelling unit, Lilieholm said. In addition, cluster zoning sets a maximum acreage limit and allows for closer spacing between homes to encourage the retention of open space. Communities and businesses may also purchase land to offset the impacts of developments in other areas.
However, legal threats from affected landowners and developers sometimes result in reluctance to enforce zoning restrictions.
"A lot of small towns are backing off zoning because they're afraid of being sued," said Lilieholm.
Historically, Utah communities controlled the use of land to protect the greater good of the community, he said. Development proposals that are incompatible with local values and standards may be legally denied by zoning.
"Population growth and real estate development do not necessarily translate into financial benefits for local governments," said Lilieholm. "Providing services to accommodate new development may cost more than the development generates in property taxes and other revenues."
Lilieholm believes the economic benefits of protecting open space are too often ignored because they are difficult to measure.
Activities like hiking, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, skiing and mountain biking have economic and social values. They include the purchase of equipment, travel costs, accommodations, guide services, meals and other service jobs.
"The land also supports natural ecosystem functions," said Lilieholm. "Open space protects our groundwater supply. It helps diminish water and air pollution, provides flood and storm damage protection and moderates temperatures.
"There are many who view these lands as a gift to be enjoyed and passed on to future generations, not to be exploited and controlled," he said.