Smart Growth in St. George: A Citizen’s View
By Susan Crook, ASLA, PLA
April 28th, 2020
Note: This article is based on my observations as a resident of St. George and on my experience as a professional landscape architect and planner. It is not intended as a comprehensive evaluation of the city’s adoption of Smart Growth principles.
The Washington Fields were farm fields when I was a student at Dixie College from 1971-73. The high school graduating classes of my California classmates were bigger than the entire student body of our tiny junior college. I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge was still under construction. The only way for California students to get home was on Highway 91 over Utah Hill. Michelle Thomas, a talented graduate of Dixie High School, was Irene Malloy in our student production of “Hello, Dolly.” She was embarrassed by her mother’s crusade to get the federal government to compensate Downwinders for the devastating effects of above ground nuclear testing.
Now the Washington Fields are growing subdivisions faster than Mormon Colonists could grow sorghum and lucerne (alfalfa) in the last half of the 19th century. Wild lands formerly managed by BLM and Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) are sprouting “greenfield” mega-developments with hundreds and thousands of units. Air pollution, Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis), and highway fatalities have replaced fallout as health risks.
The surge in development that accelerated through the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s prompted local officials to heed the call from citizens to have a voice in planning for the growth of southwest Utah. Over 3,000 people participated in the 2006 Vision Dixie development preference exercise. CSU, then Citizens for Dixie’s Future, was involved in the Vision Dixie process from the start, pushing for protection of public land and reasonable growth. The results were summarized in 10 principles meant to guide smarter development, but there were no implementation requirements for municipalities and no further invitations for citizen involvement.
The citizens of southwest Utah were not alone in their call for smarter development. The national trend toward planning based on new urbanism, complete streets, and smart growth had been gaining traction since the 1970s. Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, a national leader in the anti-sprawl movement, is credited with coining the term and concept of “smart growth,” that led to the creation of the non-profit, Smart Growth America in 2000.
Smart Growth America defines ten principles of smart development that look a lot like the results of our 2006 Vision Dixie exercise. But there are two key Smart Growth principles that are lacking in Vision Dixie. Note numbers 9 and 10 in the list below, which invite developers, community members, and other stakeholders to be collaborators in the development process.
Mix land uses
Take advantage of compact design
Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
Create walkable neighborhoods
Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
Direct development towards existing communities
Provide a variety of transportation choices
Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions
The tagline for Smart Growth America is, “Improving lives by improving communities.” I wondered if St. George City’s tagline, “The brighter side,” would reflect a smart growth philosophy of improving lives to go along with the rebranding. I started with Principle 10 and worked backwards through the list to see how St. George stacked up as a smart growth city.
Stakeholder Collaboration. What is St. George doing to foster community and stakeholder collaboration?
- The city’s website is inexplicably organized in alphabetical order rather than being intuitive with government departments and services first. Not only are citizen boards, committees, and commissions not listed, but there is no button or tab inviting citizens to get involved in governance. The only call for volunteers falls at the end of the Activities & Events tab with an invitation to help with the Arts Festival and the Marathon.
- George city council members are elected at-large, rather than representing geographic districts. In cities with district representation, community councils give citizens a voice in governance in the neighborhoods where they live. Hopefully, representation by council districts will be implemented when the city reaches a population of 100,000, the threshold for becoming a city of the first class in Utah.
- The city plans to hold another round of informal meet and greets at different locations where residents can talk to elected officials and department heads.
- There should be chances for meaningful citizen input during the city’s current general plan update process if they follow the excellent format used for the Parks and Recreation Master Plan revision.
Fairness to Developers. Does St. George make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective for developers?
- St. George has begun making zoning and ordinance revisions that enable smart development like the Desert Color planned community and mixed-use redevelopment projects, including The Advenir and Joule Plaza downtown.
Transportation Choices. Is St. George encouraging multi-modal transportation for all ages and abilities?
- SunTran bus service was launched in St. George in 2003. It has six routes, including one that serves Ivins. A seventh route serving downtown Washington City should start soon, but there are no routes serving Bloomington, Bloomington Hills, Sunriver, Washington Fields, Hidden Valley or Little Valley. Study of a much-needed route to Zion Park to help relieve automobile traffic has been in the works since 2010.
- SunTran is still headed by an Acting Manager 9 months after Fred Davies resigned in June 2019.
- UDOT approved $15 million in Recreation Hotspot money to help fund the first five years of Transit to Zion from St. George. Electric buses with on-route charging mats were recommended by Fred Davies prior to his resignation.
- George adopted its Active Transportation Plan in January 2017. The plan seeks to “improve upon the city’s and region’s reputations for healthy activity by proposing policies and standards, programs, and infrastructure that will create a more cohesive walking and bicycling network that is comfortable enough for people of all ages and abilities to walk or ride a bike to school or work, shop, visit friends, or exercise.”
Direct Development Inward. Does St. George encourage development that takes advantage of existing infrastructure rather than developing on previously undeveloped land?
- This is an impossibility for the city as it attempts to keep up with explosive growth beyond its core that is being further enabled by the development of huge parcels of School and Institutional Trust Lands.
- George has sprawled from Bloomington and Bloomington Hills into Sunriver, Washington Fields, Hidden Valley, Little Valley, Desert Canyons, Entrada, and the Ledges with little or no neighborhood commercial development within walking distance of full-time residents and visitors.
- Desert Color is heralded as a Smart Growth mixed-use planned community, but it is not yet far enough along to evaluate.
Preserve Critical Lands. Has St. George made a good-faith effort to preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas?
- The St. George park and trail system is a great success story, with nearly 300 miles of multi-use trails, 16 existing community parks, 31 existing neighborhood parks, and an additional 9 community parks and 29 neighborhood parks planned for the future.
- George has never been an agricultural hotspot. The little farmland left in the Washington Fields consists primarily of small horse properties and a few rapidly-disappearing alfalfa fields.
- Natural beauty and critical environmental areas are preserved primarily because they are on BLM-managed lands adjacent to the city. The city supports the Northern Corridor highway and the Lake Powell Pipeline, both of which will be detrimental to natural beauty and the environment if built.
Unique Sense of Place. Has St. George fostered distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place?
- The original Plat of Zion village center with its grid layout and historic buildings gives the heart of St. George a unique character. The downtown historic district includes public art that reinforces this distinctive sense of place.
- The city decided not to do an updated survey of historic properties in the city’s core in conjunction with its General Plan update, citing insufficient staff capacity.
- The distinctive character of planned golf course communities such as Bloomington and Entrada reflects planning trends of their development eras, but not of Smart Growth.
Walkable Neighborhoods. Are there walkable neighborhoods throughout St. George?
- The heart of St. George is inherently walkable with it gridded streets giving pedestrian access to nearby goods and services.
- Sprawl development with cul-de-sacs and disconnected streets inhibits walkability throughout most of the rest of St. George, even where there are few geographic challenges preventing through streets.
Housing Choice. Has St. George created a range of housing opportunities and choices?
- Historically, St. George has done little to promote affordable housing.
- Senate Bill 34, which passed the Utah Legislature in 2019, required communities to include a moderate income housing plan in their general plans by December 2019, and to report on their plan implementation annually in order to stay eligible for state transportation investments.
- The 2019 Moderate Income Housing Plan completed by St. George shows promise not only for housing choice, but for adoption of Smart Growth principles if the stated goals and strategies are implemented.
- Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), i.e. small homes that exist on the same lot as a single-family residence are currently prohibited by St. George zoning, but changing the code to allow them is noted as a strategy in the housing plan.
Compact Design. Is St. George taking advantage of compact design, growing up and not out with higher densities and infill development?
- The Grayhawk at Rivers Edge apartment complex and the Dinosaur Crossing shopping center at the intersection of Mall Drive and Riverside Drive are one of the city’s first experiments in development of a higher density, walkable neighborhood.
- New high-density student housing near DSU and mixed-use redevelopment in downtown St. George show promise of more infill and higher density in the future.
- Encouraging Transit Oriented Development (TOD) along SunTran routes and at hubs such as Sunset Corner could add to density in already developed sections of the city.
Mix Land Uses. Does St. George encourage the building of homes, offices, schools, parks, shops, restaurants, and other types of development near one another—on the same block or even within the same building?
- The St. George City Code currently uses traditional zoning that inhibits mixed-use development except where conditional uses are allowed, such as in a Planned Development (PD) zone.
- Adopting form-based codes rather than using traditional zoning could create a supportive environment for development of innovative, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use projects that could include more collaboration with stakeholders including residents and developers.
The Smart Growth scorecard for St. George City is currently mixed. Collaboration with stakeholders could be a key to success going forward. The city would do well to adopt the public involvement approach of Utah’s first professional planner, George Smeath. When he was hired as Salt Lake County’s first planning director in 1949, he and his staff were given the task of developing the county’s first zoning plan. In his memoir he said, “We believed that if we had the local people sit in on the preparation of the zoning proposals, zoning would become a reality….zoning became ‘their’ program, not ours. We helped them, but they were in on all the decisions…”
St. George’s Moderate Income Housing Plan could be the catalyst for a more integrated approach to land use, housing and transportation planning if its goals and strategies are truly embraced and implemented. Strategy 1 under Goal 2, now reads, “Educate the public to understand and support the benefits of mixed-use and mixed income communities.” It should be amended with this call to action, “and involve all stakeholders in the planning process in a meaningful way.”
St. George has come a long way since my days at Dixie State!