Sunday, September 10, 2006


Washington County Growth: Good Intentions Going Awry

(Published by the Salt Lake Tribune September 10, 2006)

For nearly twenty years I lived in one of the fastest growing suburbs of Los Angeles. Two years ago I retired and moved to Washington, Utah. I thought I was well prepared to deal with the projected population growth of Washington County because of my experience in southern California.

Boy was I wrong.

My surfer friends in California have developed a rating system to describe wave conditions. A really nice wave is “sweet.” A monster wave that is too big to safely surf is “insane.” I’ve come to the conclusion that the growth wave rolling over Washington County isn’t sweet. It’s insane.

In 2000 the population of Washington County was 90,000. Today, less than six years later, it exceeds 130,000. According to the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, the area is now growing at the average rate of 1,000 new residents per month. If current trends continue, the population will exceed 180,000 in 2010, packing double the number of people into the scenic southwestern desert of Utah in just ten years.

I have yet to meet a resident of the area who thinks such rapid growth is a good thing. Why would anyone think that replacing red rock beauty with ostentatious hillside mansions is a good thing? Who enjoys barely-moving bumper-to-bumper traffic on recently expanded roads that are five lanes wide instead of the two lanes that were sufficient just two years ago? And is the convenience of another strip mall of retail stores and fast food joints really more valuable than the sense of community and local culture it inevitably displaces?

It’s probably obvious to you that I haven’t met every resident of the area. Such growth could not occur unless many residents were rolling out the red carpet and inviting one and all to move to Washington County. I haven’t met them, but I do know who they are. The welcoming committee is headed by elected and appointed officials of the county and the cities within its boundaries. Major land owners, developers, builders and real estate agents round out the committee.

Why is this pro-growth coalition so enthusiastically and effectively trying to turn a desert oasis into a congested corridor of strip malls and suburban uniformity? A cynic who has experienced this kind of growth elsewhere might conclude that civic leaders are enriching themselves through participation in development and construction deals. That’s usually the case. But I don’t think it applies here. Oh, there are probably a few bad apples who have placed their own financial interests above the interests of the community as a whole, but not many. No, from what I can tell pro-growth advocates are good men and women trying to do what is right for the community.

Why do they think that rolling out the welcome mat instead of putting up the stop sign is a good thing for Washington County? I think there are two primary reasons.

First, to have thousands of people moving into the community is a vindication of sorts for those who have lived here for a long time. Let’s not forget that for decades St. George was considered nothing more than an inhospitable gas stop on the way to or from southern California. We all know how good it feels when the rest of the world finally comes around to something we figured out first.

Second, nobody wants to get in the way of a long-suffering resident’s opportunity to make a killing in the hyper-inflated real estate market. After many decades of barely getting by, how can local leaders block the path to instant prosperity for neighbors and friends? Especially when so many long-time residents have already participated in the boom.

You see, I think it’s accurate to say that those who favor growth in Washington County have their hearts in the right place. And therein lies the problem.

Growth in an oasis like the red rock country of southwestern Utah needs to be managed by tough minds, not soft hearts. Now that the word is out to retiring baby boomers all over the country, Washington County will not be able to soft-heartedly satisfy the demand without completely destroying everything that made it so attractive in the first place.

I’m sure the leadership of Washington County is tough minded enough to do what needs to be done. After all, they managed to eke out a living in a barren desert and turn it into an oasis now coveted by more people than can be accommodated. I hope they make the transition from heart to mind soon. Otherwise, good intentions are sure to go awry and this red rock haven will be lost forever.

That would truly be insane.

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