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SALT LAKE CITY — As the Beehive State continues to grapple with issues caused by rapid growth, the majority of residents trust local leaders over the state government to plan for infrastructure needs, according to the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
In a survey of 2,000 residents conducted by Y2 Analytics, the league found that 63% of residents in fast-growing counties feel the state is growing too quickly.
"The biggest takeaway for us was that there was this level of trust at the local government level to get infrastructure right," Cameron Diehl, executive director of the league, said during a meeting with the combined KSL and Deseret News editorial board ahead of the upcoming legislative session.
By comparison, only 6% trust the Legislature the most and 5% trust the governor the most compared to local governments to plan for long-term infrastructure needs in cities, according to the survey.
"There was also a level of responsibility that residents put on local government to get it right. So we've got both the credit and the blame for getting it right, and there's where this balance between the state doing their role and local governments doing their role is critical to find," Diehl said.
South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey said cities have the ability to develop creative solutions to housing needs. South Jordan has been "looking hard" at what it can do to provide more affordable housing, according to Ramsey. This year, the city partnered with Ivory Homes in a project to build townhouses and single-family homes.
South Jordan used redevelopment funds to pay for the upfront construction cost of nine of the townhouses, which will be dedicated to moderate-income housing for those who make up to 80% of the median income for Salt Lake County. The homes will be designated for public employees who work for the city or the school district, she said, who will get the opportunity to buy the houses before others.
"Because we have such good people who work in our city who can't afford to live in our city, and we want them to be able to," she said.
The city changed zoning in the area and worked with surrounding neighbors to get support on the project.
"And that really kind of counteracts the mindset that people have that we don't want anybody different than us, or smaller homes than us, or more dense housing than us anywhere near us," Ramsey said.
While it's an example of something the city can do, she said, solutions aren't "one-size-fits-all." Cities should be able to do what works best in their own communities, according to Ramsey.
"One of the things that I think we would not like to see is a state mandate of some kind or a state takeover of some of the local control regarding zoning and how we zone for housing. We all know that cities don't build housing, and we can't control the cost of the land in our city," Ramsey said.
"Cities work. Cities are addressing the issues of the day that we're confronting, and we do constantly joust with the Legislature, but we want them to know that we are the ones that are better equipped to deal with actually interfacing with the public about a lot of these issues," Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said.
He noted that city leadership has more time to hear from residents during city council meetings and other hearings.
Diehl said in recent years there has been a "flood" of bills from "certain legislators who are trying to interfere with those traditional roles of local government."
"Based on what we've seen this interim, I think we're going to go back to what we saw prior to last year, which is, ballpark, third of all bills that get introduced impact local government in some way," Diehl said.
But he expressed optimism because Gov.-elect Spencer Cox once served as a mayor, councilman and county commissioner and "understands those unique challenges" faced by cities.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell noted that cities don't hold "all the keys" in addressing the issue of housing affordability in the state, but cities have helped hasten housing construction by not raising impact fees and by reducing the time spent in planning and permitting for housing projects over recent years.
Cities throughout the state have seen 23,279 new residential units built this year through September, and the state is expected to either match or exceed the nearly 27,000 built in 2019, according to data from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute shared by the league.
"In the last few years, the number of units is keeping pace with population growth. We still have a gap because of the depths of the recession, but we're seeing this equalization as we've had this emphasis on coordination over the last few years," Diehl said.