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Wasatch County delays vote on new farmland protection policy

Heidi Franco
Some have called the North Fields the "crown jewel" of the Heber Valley.

In its Wednesday meeting, the Wasatch County Council didn’t vote on  a measure that could stave off development of some open spaces.

An ordinance that would affect Wasatch County farmlands is on hold, after the county council decided it needed more time to iron out details. The ordinance, if passed, could offer a way for property owners to resist development through what would be called agriculture protection areas.

Landowners within the protection areas could have more legal power to combat eminent domain and nuisance lawsuits.

But councilmembers said before voting on it, they need more time to meet with those the new policy would affect, including state government.

That’s in part because preventing development could impact the state’s plans to build a highway bypass through the Heber Valley North Fields. The Utah Department of Transportation has released multiple designs for a bypass, and the county has denounced two of those because they run through open space the council wants to leave untouched.

The council voted 4-2 to postpone a decision. Councilmembers Steve Farrell and Marilyn Crittenden said they were ready to pass it.

Councilmember Kendall Crittenden said it wouldn’t hurt to wait until a December meeting to help preserve a working relationship with the state.

“I think we need to communicate with UDOT and let them know where this is coming from and what we're trying to do," Critten said. "I don't know why to wait until the 7th delays anything. I don't know where it conflicts with anything.”

The measure would create an advisory board that could advise the council on exemptions for landowners from certain types of development. The concept is based on a 1994 state law called the Utah Agriculture Protection Area Act.

County councilmembers and planning commissioners say the main goal is to empower landowners in the North Fields.

Councilmembers said agriculture protection areas wouldn’t be specifically aimed at preventing UDOT’s plans to build the bypass. But according to Garrick Hall of the Utah Department of Agriculture, the protection areas could help landowners resist eminent domain.

However, Hall said there’s no precedent for landowners using protection areas to supercede eminent domain.

North Fields landowner and general contractor Dennis Van Leeuwen said time is of the essence to protect Heber Valley farmlands.

“I've built in pristine areas — such as Jackson Hole, Sun Valley, Carbondale, Hawaii — and over that time, I've seen little bits of movement that cities or municipalities take, and then it allows developers to come in, and as soon as they have their foot in the door, you see these pristine areas destroyed," Van Leeuwen said. "And once they're gone, they're gone forever. There's no way to return it.”

The council also wants to avoid imposing restrictions that might later derail the particular road design that they support. So, it’s looking at making certain areas ineligible for protection.

Marilyn Crittenden said the county should use protection areas as a way to retain some control of the final outcome.

“We should be able to have that kind of a say, that ‘This is where we want the road to go through,'" she said. "Find a way to design it,’ rather than giving them all the freedom to just put it wherever they want. And we're trying to protect the farmers and allow them to farm and continue.”

The council will revisit the topic in its December 7 meeting.