Wasatch County Council passes law that could hamper UDOT efforts to build Heber bypass
The Wasatch County Council gave local farmers a boost and planners of the Heber Valley bypass a challenge at this week's council meeting.
The Wasatch County voted Wednesday to allow landowners to create agriculture protection areas, which could make it harder for the state to build a highway bypass wherever it may want.
What began with a group of farmers asking for safeguards on their land has resulted in the creation of an agriculture protection area advisory board in Wasatch County. Now that board can work with county government to potentially combat eminent domain and nuisance lawsuits to those landowners.
The next step is for County Manager Dustin Grabau to appoint committee members. After that, landowners can apply to the committee for protections through a process the county will need to establish.
Under the county’s new ordinance, the eligible land is in the Heber Valley North and South fields. Those contain thousands of acres of undeveloped pastures between Heber City, Midway and the entrance to the Heber Valley.
That’s also where the Utah Department of Transportation is planning a bypass road to alleviate traffic in downtown Heber — a topic the county and state don’t see eye-to-eye on.
County council members have denounced UDOT’s road design through the full length of the North Fields. That’s because many in the community want to preserve the fields as open space.
Agriculture protection areas won’t necessarily block efforts to build that road but could make them trickier.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Deputy County Attorney Jon Woodard said he had met with UDOT about how the county’s agriculture protection areas would affect the state’s bypass plans. He said the new ordinance wouldn’t change UDOT’s process.
“They were pretty clear that they don’t want the county to have a voice in their process beyond the voice of any other interested party,” Woodard said.
Councilwoman Marilyn Crittenden was also at the meeting with UDOT. She said Wednesday that a fight over the bypass design between the county and state could be coming.
“I kind of sum it up this way, that ‘You do what you have to do; we’re going to do what we have to do,” she said.
Woodard suggested a compromise with the state, which would involve the county agreeing not to protect land that is in two of UDOT’s designs.
That’s because those designs look pretty much like the county’s preferred design. Woodard figured UDOT might work with them and choose not to build through the entire length of the North Fields.
The council did not follow his recommendation. Instead, the ordinance paves the way for the county to challenge UDOT’s designs through agriculture protection areas.
Councilman Spencer Park was the only one to vote against the ordinance. He said he would have preferred to follow Woodard’s advice and go with the compromise.
There’s no precedent on whether agriculture protection areas can stop UDOT from claiming land for road-building. Woodard said state code would require UDOT to prove it has no other “reasonable and prudent” option than a protected land area.
He also said according to UDOT, public feedback could play a factor.
“UDOT says the biggest impact to their moving forward with their standard process is if there is significant public outcry against all the planned options.”
The next milestone in UDOT’s multi-year study of the Heber Valley bypass is expected next spring. That’s when project manager Craig Hancock has said it may choose a favorite out of the five designs currently on the table, which would then trigger environmental impact studies.