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Heber officials debate building-height limits

Heber City is considering changes to allow buildings taller than three stories in some of its commercial zones. Some members of the city council have advocated for keeping building heights in areas like central downtown capped at three stories.
Ben Lasseter
As Heber City decides whether to shore up zoning rules about building heights, city officials met Wednesday to discuss strategies for the year ahead.

New housing and more business, or a small-town feel? As Heber’s population booms, the debate is part of the city’s growing pains and was the focus of a conversation about the city’s future strategy Wednesday.

The Heber City Council and planning commission held a joint meeting and heard varying viewpoints about how tall the city’s skyline should be.

Suggestions ranged from setting two-story limits to no limits at all to more nuanced ideas for varying city zones. That could involve step backs, which require upper levels of tall buildings to be pushed in to increase visibility and views.

As City Planning Director Tony Kohler explained, the meeting Tuesday was not to make decisions but to brainstorm and hear from everyone involved with urban planning rules.

Building height came into focus in May 2022, when the planning commission approved a new five-story hotel — taller than any building in the county. Commissioners said they had to because city zoning laws allowed buildings that tall. That sparked public backlash, and the council quickly voted to limit all buildings to three stories for six months.

In October, the council limited heights to four stories in two downtown areas and three stories in one other. But that still leaves other city zones without updated rules.

Councilwoman Yvonne Barney said it’s important to identify Heber’s character and set limits accordingly. When it comes to building heights, she referenced Park City’s historic areas.

“They’ve kept that historical area, and they’ve decided in broad ways to keep it. But I think that’s the point going forward, is that we have to find our height. We’re not the Wasatch Front.”

Councilmember Mike Johnston said he’s less interested in limiting building heights with permanent rules because that can tie the city’s hands when it has hard decisions in the future.

“Cities evolve, just like nature evolves. You can’t ever assume, ‘Oh, this is how it’s always going to be or always should be.’ That really makes them decline, essentially, if we can’t let things grow organically. And that’s how our cities all evolve until we start to say, ‘Oh, this is what it’s going to look like, forever,’ and now you see process-hungry towns in decline because they’re stuck.”

Planning Commissioner Dave Richards said he didn’t come away with specific guidance, but the meeting helped him understand what will factor into the council’s decisions.

“Some people want to see the community just stay as it is. They want something very quaint and very limited access for only, maybe, rich people can get here, and other people are more looking at tax-base revenue. And so I think those are the two sides. Are you looking for a business side of it, or are you looking to just have a community that's very exclusive, and not everybody can afford to be here?”

The planning commission’s role is to review applications with developers and city staff and make recommendations to the city council. After that happens, the council makes yes-or-no decisions of whether to approve projects, such as housing developments or commercial spaces.

In a different meeting with the council last month, Richards and Planning Commission Chair Dennis Gunn said the commission and council had room for improvement when it comes to communicating. Richards said after Tuesday, he felt the two bodies were off to a good start.

Richards said he expects a busy agenda in 2023. He said that could include inviting businesses it wants to open in town, and the policies such as for building heights it sets will play a role in how often that happens.

Footage of the full meeting is available at heberut.gov.

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