Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Whose Interests Are Served By The Washington County Land Bill?
Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Jim Matheson are working overtime to sneak the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act through the current lame-duck session of Congress. If their efforts go unrewarded, the bill will almost certainly die in committee when Democrats take control in January.
The architects of the bill — the Washington County Commission of James Eardley, Alan Gardner and Jay Ence — are hoping for quick passage. It’s the only way to get some relief from the firestorm of local opposition ignited by the bill.
The chief concern is a provision that paves the way — pun intended — to quickly shift 4,300 acres of public land to private ownership. It also specifies that an additional 20,000 acres of public land eventually would be sold to private interests at a later date. That’s enough land to easily accommodate 80,000 new homes. With average home prices exceeding $325,000 in Washington County, the bill represents a bonanza of many billions of dollars for land investors, developers and home builders. For those who oppose the potential land-grab, it represents traffic jams, urban sprawl and serious degradation in the quality of their lives.
The commissioners have been their own worst enemies in this debate. Consider what Commissioner Eardley said about the bill in a Los Angeles Times article:
"One of the problems in the West is that the federal government owns most of the land. I say 'He who owns the land, holds the power.' "
To many, Eardley seems out of touch. Many long-time residents abhor federal land ownership, but a more diverse population of newcomers is more concerned with quality of life than who holds the power.
The career choices of commissioners Ence and Gardner are even more problematic. Ence co-founded Ence Homes, the largest-volume homebuilder in southern Utah. He retired and turned the business over to three nephews before running for office. But retirement doesn’t shield Mr. Ence from the fact that his extended family derives great financial benefit from development within the county.
Profiting from growth is also a family affair for Commissioner Gardner. He and his brother, Larry, are managers in three companies with significant land holdings in a beautiful area east of Snow Canyon State Park known as the Ledges. In 2001, the St. George City Council — with Larry Gardner a member — voted to annex the Ledges. Three years later, the same council voted to rezone more than 1,000 acres of Ledges property, converting it from low-value grazing land to high-value real estate.
The city council decisions had a stunning financial impact on Ledges land. According to Washington County property records, the several hundred acres owned or partly owned by the Gardner-related business entities increased in value by many millions of dollars.
Such entanglements make it difficult to determine if the land bill is good for the county, the commissioners, or both.
For example, the bill clears the way for a potential east-west highway north of St. George. The highway would connect I-15 with State Road 18 either very close to the Ledges or, at most, a few miles away. Direct access from the freeway — thereby avoiding the perpetual traffic jam through St. George — would further enhance the value of the Ledges. One can only speculate how many of the 24,300 acres of public land liberated by the bill might end up in the Gardner land portfolio.
To their credit, Ence and the Gardners seem to have scrupulously followed Utah law concerning conflicts of interest while in public service. They’ve certainly done some good as public servants and undoubtedly feel that election to office is a mandate for their pro-growth agenda.
But voters have not had the opportunity to make truly informed choices. Campaigns in Washington County consist of street signs adorned with short slogans and sparsely attended candidate forums. When it comes time to vote, most of us don’t know much beyond the candidates’ party affiliations. (Washington County votes about 70 percent Republican.) This has created a serious disconnect between elected officials and public sentiment on the issue of growth.
Despite persistent and intense lobbying by Gardner and Eardley, only 36 percent of the city councils in the county voted in favor of a resolution to support the bill. The magnitude of that repudiation should give pause to Bennett and Matheson. And their characterization of the opposition as outside interference from extreme environmentalists is either disingenuous or uninformed. The strong opposition primarily concerns quality-of-life issues, not hugging trees and protecting turtles.
Bennett and Matheson should withdraw the bill and await the outcome of the citizen-based planning process that is belatedly under way. It’s the only way to ensure that the public interest — not private or special interests — is served.