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Heber City leaders support highway bypass, disagree over design

Ben Lasseter
The intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and River Road sits at the northern end of the Heber Valley. State planners are studying building a highway bypass road that connects either at that intersection or just north of downtown Heber.

As state planners near the late stages of designing a highway bypass road in the Heber Valley, Heber City Council members want to support that process. However, that means different things to different elected leaders, and residents.

A week after Heber City Mayor Heidi Franco and Councilman Ryan Stack met with Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) Executive Director Carlos Braceras, Stack said Braceras asked if local governments still support the idea. That prompted the council to plan for a formal resolution stating the city supports the bypass and the study of where to build it, although it didn’t vote on that Tuesday.

During Tuesday’s city council meeting, residents and council members shared contrasting opinions and emotions about what the bypass should be.

Since 2007, Wasatch County has tweaked designs of a belt route around Heber City to draw highway drivers away from downtown. Such a route could begin at U.S. Highway 40 just south of the city and reconnect to the highway just north of town.

UDOT is reviewing five routes for a U.S. Highway 40 bypass around Heber City. Two of those, pictured right and labeled WB-3 in orange and WB-4 in blue, have drawn the ire of residents who say they would damage one of the Heber Valley's cherished open-space areas.
UDOT is reviewing five routes for a U.S. Highway 40 bypass around Heber City. Two of those, pictured right and labeled WB-3 in orange and WB-4 in blue, have drawn the ire of residents who say they would damage one of the Heber Valley's cherished open-space areas.

In recent years, UDOT has brought forth another concept. In two out of the five designs still under consideration, the bypass road would continue much farther through open farm lands known as the North Fields, all the way to River Road.

“We need the North Fields not to be talked about as a bypass ever,” Heber resident Linda Middleton said to the council Tuesday. “We have done so much repair of this riparian area, and we just need to keep it as a place for the water to go and the animals to live so we can have open space and see things. And they can do it in Park City with the Swaner Preserve. Why are we even talking about destroying that area? I never want to hear it again.”

She and other residents mentioned potential harm road construction could do to wetlands, wildlife habitats and existing farms.

Christi Judd cited public comments UDOT published as part of its study. She and members of the Friends of Heber Valley nonprofit counted roughly 270 messages that opposed each of the two proposed parkway designs through the North Fields, versus about 65 in favor of them.

Councilwoman Yvonne Barney said she would honor that majority opinion with her voting power.

“It's our responsibility to make sure that we have the safest situations,” Barney said, “but at the same time, it is also our responsibility for those of you who have voted us here that we listen to what you were asking us, and you have asked us over and over again, protect those North Fields. So, I, for one, will say no to the North Fields bypass.”

UDOT will make the final decision about which road to build, but state planners have said they will consider opinions of the public and local governments when doing so.

Keeping the bypass out of as much of the North Fields as possible aligns with a resolution the Wasatch County Council passed last year.

City Councilman Mike Johnston called that hypocritical. He said much of the population growth that’s coming to the valley is a result of thousands of homes county government approved to be built in the Jordanelle area.

He said planners missed the opportunity to prepare for current traffic 20 years ago because Main Street businesses owners complained they would lose customers, and this time planners should prioritize the best traffic solution.

Councilwoman Rachel Kahler said she supported a design that will prepare city infrastructure to handle thousands of new homes being built north of town.

To her, that points to the parkway option, which would stretch beyond several new developments to be built along Highway 40 in the next decade. While she supports open space conservation, she said traditional strategies, such as conservation easements and local governments buying up the land, may not be enough anyway.

“It could take up to $300 million dollars — $300 million — to preserve the remaining 3,000 acres in the North Fields,” Kahler said. “I believe that working with UDOT, we can actually preserve more open space.”

One anonymous commenter on Tuesday said they supported UDOT prioritizing the best traffic solution over open space conservation.

City Manager Matt Brower said city staff will prepare a draft resolution the council can consider on March 21. He said as directed in the meeting, it will merely state that the Heber City Council fully supports UDOT continuing the bypass study, not any specific designs.

Last week, UDOT project manager Craig Hancock told KPCW his team expects to choose a preferred bypass design late this summer. While that won’t be the final decision, it’s one of the last steps in UDOT’s process to complete the study.

UDOT officials have said after the study is over and a final decision is made, construction may not begin for up to a decade. That’s because funding is already allocated to many other state road projects.

A link to view the meeting in full is available at heberut.gov.

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