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New farmland protections in Wasatch County up for review

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Utah Open Lands
The North Fields are a swath of thousands of acres of pastures north of Heber City, between U.S. Highway 40 and the Wasatch Mountains.

The Wasatch County Planning Commission will consider a plan to create a new way for farmers to avoid development, lawsuits and other challenges to their land. 

Thursday night, the planning commission will discuss a new method farmland-owners could use to resist urban growth.

It’s reviewing a draft of a county ordinance that would establish a committee of people to review landowners’ claims that their property should be protected. As the ordinance is written, Wasatch County Manager Dustin Grabau would pick the members of the committee.

The idea is that the committee could grant exemptions from certain types of development pressures. That is based on a 1994 state law called the Utah Agriculture Protection Area Act.

Garrick Hall with the Utah Department of Agriculture told KPCW that creating protection programs allows farmers to guard their land against eminent domain, nuisance lawsuits and zoning changes. He said agriculture protection areas are prevalent in Cache County and at fruit farms in and around Santaquin.

The county’s timing coincides with the Utah Department of Transportation plan to build a highway bypass through the Heber Valley North Fields. UDOT is considering two designs that would build the road through a large, undeveloped pasture area the county has said it wants to protect.

Hall said the agricultural protection area is designed to serve people, not governments, but using it in Wasatch County could slow down UDOT’s plans if North Fields landowners utilize it.

Hall said such protections have held up in court in the past, and the state has changed plans for projects like water and utility lines because of them, but there’s no precedent of thwarting plans to build a state road.

Grabau said the county’s broader goal is to protect agricultural land everywhere, not just in the North Fields, from changes.

If the planning commission recommends approval, the county council will decide whether to make it official in its regular meeting next Wednesday. A public hearing on the topic is required, but no details about when that would occur are available yet.

The planning commission meets Thursday, Nov. 10 at 6 p.m. at the Wasatch County Administration Building, 25 North Main Street. A link to attend the meeting via Zoom is available at wasatch.utah.gov.

Ben Lasseter reports for KPCW in Wasatch County. Before moving to Heber City, Ben worked in Manti as a general assignment newspaper reporter and editor.
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