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Agriculture protection areas supported by Wasatch County Planning Commission, farmers, residents

Wasatch County Heber City North Fields
Ben Lasseter
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KPCW
While some in Wasatch County support building a road through the North Fields to decrease Main Street traffic congestion, others say the move would tarnish the Heber Valley's "crown jewel."

The Wasatch County Planning commission approved a plan for what some call a way to protect open space in the county’s pastures.

At Thursday’s planning commission meeting, the concept of agriculture protection areas drew widespread support from government officials and farmers.

The four commissioners present voted to send a draft ordinance to the Wasatch County Council.

If the council passes the ordinance, farmland-owners could apply for protection from growth-related issues like nuisance lawsuits, eminent domain actions and zoning-rule changes. The planning commission and a new advisory board appointed by the county manager would help the council decide whether to grant each request.

Planners said the primary goal is to resist development pressures in the thousands of acres of pastures known as the North Fields. The Utah Department of Transportation has designed bypass roads for U.S. Highway 40 through the fields, which many residents oppose. Those plans are still being studied and UDOT hasn’t made a decision yet, but wants to reroute the highway to reduce traffic though downtown Heber.

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In June, UDOT released a list of five traffic routes it says it's evaluating in the process of selecting a plan to reduce traffic in downtown Heber City. Members of the Wasatch County Council and residents have come out in opposition of the two leftmost options, which would more strongly impact the North Fields pastures.

Garrick Hall of the Utah Department of Agriculture has advised the county in recent months on permitting agriculture protection areas. He told KPCW there isn’t a precedent on local farmers using protection areas to block a state road, but they could be effective in this case.

“I don't know if it can go that far as to stop the highway,” Hall said, “but it's certainly going to protect the landowner and make it more difficult for UDOT to just go right through the middle of their alfalfa field, as opposed to rerouting that down existing right-of-way and looking at other options.”

On Thursday, rancher Mike Probst applauded the protection zones as a way to preserve the rural character of the Heber Valley.

“It's important to protect the North Fields,” he said. "I mean, it's the last best place in Wasatch County. I go out there everyday to feed cattle, and invariably, there'll be two or three people walking the dogs. There'll be two or three people riding their bikes. There'll be families just walking out there. So, we know the bypass has to go somewhere, but let's make it as tolerable as we can without ruining our fields.”

Others including farmers and Heber City Mayor Heidi Franco also spoke in favor of protection zones.

When the Utah Agriculture Protection Area Act passed in 1994, lawmakers worked with organizations like Utah Open Lands to balance state development priorities with farming. Utah Open Lands Executive Director Wendy Fisher said along with conservation easements, these protection areas are among the best tools available to preserve land.

“The Heber Valley community has been pretty vocal for the past decade about the importance of protecting the North Fields,” Fisher said. “What I think is most critical in these sorts of conversations is the transparency that Wasatch County government has already put forth — and that is that they want to see the North Fields protected.”

The Utah Department of Transportation didn’t respond to KPCW’s request for comment in time for this report.

At its next meeting November 16, the Wasatch County Council could vote to create the agriculture protection area advisory board. That would pave the way for farmers to apply for protection areas on their land.

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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