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Residential Growth Leading to Landslide Risks

Residential Growth Leading to Landslide Risks


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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- As growth brings more and more families to Utah, new housing developments are popping up throughout the state in places that once may have seemed off limits because they are in geologically unstable areas.

"A lot of our easily developed land is now developed," said Gary Christenson, geologic-hazards program manager at the Utah Geological Survey. "Our risk is increasing. We are building into riskier areas."

Not all city and county governments have designated certain geologically hazardous areas off limits for developments. Some governments are willing to negotiate when developers have plans for a new hillside neighborhood or river-front subdivision.

"There is pressure from the development community, but cities are trying to respond by developing ordinances," Utah League of Cities and Towns planning consultant Megan Ryan said. Some cities have created so-called sensitive-lands ordinances. Such regulations may prohibit developing on slopes of a particular grade. They may require developers to put certain precautions in place before building in river bottoms. Or they may declare wetlands off limits, among many other provisions.

"Often it's cities that have had problems in the past that are especially cognizant of it," Christenson said.

In St. George, development has long been prohibited in areas designated as floodplains by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, last year's rushing rivers swept away houses that weren't built in the floodplain. Instead of being flooded, they actually fell into the rising water as the ground around them eroded.

FEMA has since re-evaluated the Virgin and Santa Clara floodplains, which have changed as erosion altered the riverbeds. The agency has also designated "erosion zones," where high water could destabilize homes without ever flooding them. St. George has updated its ordinances to require special precautions for development in such zones. Even still, it's no guarantee.

"It's hard to know where those will occur," assistant city manager Marc Mortensen said. "We have an idea, but even now we're not 100 percent confident that that erosion zone won't grow over time."

Christenson said the UGS is willing to work closely with cities seeking to focus their planning on safely guiding future growth. Cities like Layton, Ogden and Provo have made use of that offer. Some other cities, Christenson said, have not.

"We certainly encourage all cities and counties to deal with geologic hazards," he said.

Some cities have turned to zoning to keep development away from certain areas. But zoning can be a sweeping designation of a huge chunk of land and can ignore the existence of undevelopable areas mere yards away from perfectly safe areas.

Tim Watkins, senior planner at quality-growth advocacy group Envision Utah, promotes the idea of purchasing or transferring development rights. A developer who owns land zoned to allow three homes per acre could buy the right to more density from a nearby landowner whose land is in the same zone but is more sensitive and less suitable for development. The overall density would remain the same no more than three homes per acre in the entire zone but the stable land would be developed more densely while the sensitive land would remain untouched.

The idea has been used recently to keep development out of Mapleton's foothills and canyons by driving density toward the valley floor.

But not everyone supports the idea of governments managing development to that degree. During the 2006 Legislature, several bills came up that would have restricted cities' ability to zone and manage land-use planning. Most of those bills were gutted, killed by committee or replaced by less-dramatic bills. But many involved in city government believe some legislators are trying to send a message: Let landowners have more control of how their land is developed.

"Cities are trying to do the right thing, and I'm not sure the Legislature supports that," Ryan said. "Maybe that's a message (lawmakers) need to hear from their constituents in the cities."

One group that has criticized so-called quality-growth planning and other land-use controls by city and county governments is the conservative Sutherland Institute. However, president Paul Mero said protecting homeowners from geologic instability is one of the instances when such controls might not be out of the question as long as developers and builders are involved in the process.

"The role of local government in development is health and safety, so this certainly fits into that category," Mero said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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