This week I had the opportunity to participate in the Agriculture and Open Space workgroup associated with the Valley Visioning project (through Envision Utah and the Utah County Association of Chambers). The purpose of the workgroup was to consider existing data and community feedback to evaluate potential agriculture and open-space scenarios for the next several decades. I joined the workgroup because of my desire to understand the opportunities and strategies to preserve beautiful communities such as ours as well as better understand Utah’s reliance on externally grown food. I am no agriculture expert!
One of the most important resources associated with understanding the state of agriculture is the Utah County Agriculture Toolbox. (I encourage you to read more here!) The Toolbox provides a sophisticated analysis that includes dozens of strategies and addresses threats to success. Two goals addressed by the Toolbox are:
- Work to make and keep agriculture economically and socially viable in Utah County.
- Encourage development patterns and implement measures that support agricultural land and water resources.
Both of the goals were addressed in the workshop and with consideration for population growth we’re anticipating through 2060. One fundamental question was whether we should grow west or south.
Without the context of geography, topography, and soil science, the answers are more difficult. However, we know that the central and southern end of Utah County includes prime land for producing niche, marketable, and needed crops. For example, hillsides that provide air flow and drainage are excellent for apple production. Yet, you won’t find a successful apple orchard in western Utah County anytime soon. Considering where our land best solves known problems is important in our long-term planning. In this example, it seems obvious that the majority of development should occur on the west side of Utah Lake where the land is less viable for farming these specialty crops.
Hobby farms that grow alfalfa do not solve our self-sufficiency issues. We raise plenty of proteins in Utah, yet we produce well below 10% of the fruits and vegetables we’d need should we no longer be able to import from places like California and Mexico. As a state that prides itself on self-sufficiency (both at the state level and in our own homes), adequacy of agricultural space and the designation of how that space is used are important conversations.
That brings up several other scenarios associated with the first goal. First, we value the rights of property owners. No farmer should be forced to keep land that he can no longer farm, isn’t interested in farming, and, potentially, for which his own children are likewise no interested in farming. However, if there were stronger economic models that incentivized current and future farmers, would that change the social attitude and interests about being a farmer? Would we create new farmers if they perceived a good living would accompany their hard work? Use of conservation easements, designated greenbelts, enhanced technology, improved water resources, and increased awareness across the citizenry are strategies that may support the emergence of a new generation of farmers. Farming which is supported by technology and science, and which is respected by the State and advocated by the community, is essential to Utah’s future.
Regarding the second goal, effective use of transferrable development rights (TDRs), as has been demonstrated in Mapleton, prioritizes the preservation and conservation of strategic lands. However, this is a model that has not been effective in many local communities; in fact, this might be something about which Mapleton may educate other municipalities throughout Utah! Complicated as they may be, having the intention set on open spaces empowers city leaders to make decisions consistent with community values. (TDRs for the win!) Additionally, every city should identify priority land that needs to be preserve for agricultural use or open space. Likewise, cities should ensure alignment between their general plan and zoning maps that respect best practices for growth.
In Mapleton, we have some citizens concerned about higher density developments destroying our beautiful views and gobbling up our open spaces. An interesting case study to watch is with the unique PD-1 zone for Mapleton Village through which we’ll have some high density residencies in a designated cluster and then the majority of the acreage are larger single-family lots. The unique angle is that this zone requires a generous 35% total open space. Providing flexibility for developers may, in fact, reduce suburban sprawl and preserve larger open spaces for us to enjoy. Many residents may feel having a home on every third or half acre is “sprawl” – yet, if we understand our zones, we see our residential zones don’t actually require open space – the PD-1, while allowing higher density, requires that 35% and which is achieved through master planning. For some, this may be a question on what is the lesser of the evils; for others this is perceived as an excellent approach to sustaining the “feel” that brought us all here in the first place. Where do you stand?
I’m interested to get your feedback on these topics! What are your thoughts on agriculture and open space? How should we address these in Mapleton to preserve the small-town feel we love?
Each morning, I hear several killdeer rehearsing their repertoire along 1200 West. These ground-nesting birds fascinate me with their effective use of injury-feigning display to distract would-be maliciousness from their nests. My first encounter with a killdeer sucked me in – I truly believed that mama had a broken wing and that I needed to intervene. When I realized she wasn’t injured and Googled to understand her motives, my concerned turned to respect. This was a visual display of Darwinism.
So, what does this have to do with tax reform?
Firstly, it’s essential to understand the situation to develop an appropriate response. Had I attempted to care for the killdeer, I might have done more harm. Similarly, jumping into tax reform without understanding the situation may, too, result in ineffective solutions and unintended consequences.
Secondly, like the impressive diversion created by the feigned injury, tax reform is an area of controversy and complexity through which agendas and lobbying are ever-present. If we respect one another and our shared goals in society, we receive the killdeer’s message and step away from the vicinity of the nest. If not, we deviously revel in our awareness that her behaviors actually result in the nest temporary abandonment – an ideal time to strike.
Thirdly, tax reform itself – done poorly – may serve a Darwinian role to the economy. Likewise, so, too, may the lack of tax reform.
Regardless of whether you buy the analogy, understanding the situation, acknowledging its controversy and complexity, and being ever-diligent in using data to model effective outcomes prior to changing law are three critical aspects of this process.
Now, for the specifics.
Utah’s tax code is extremely outdated and, although we’re an economically sound state and recognized for our effective financial management, the money isn’t flowing into or out of the right buckets. For example, current law (written in the 1980s) places a large emphasis on sales of goods. However, consumers in the 2010s purchase more services than goods. As such, we see insufficient revenue in our general fund. However, we have an income surplus. Fundamentally, the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario applies in Utah.
Other factors beyond goods and services models that influence our current dilemma include increasing demands on the general fund that accompany increases in population (e.g., air quality, Medicaid, homelessness) and our own choices to reduce food taxes and increase exemptions and earmarks.
An interesting point made by Commissioner John Valentine at the enlightening Bold Ideas on Tax Reform Workshop that I attended this week (through the Public Policy Committee of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce) was regarding the impact of technology on tax code. Technology has changed the delivery of goods to the extent that they’ve become lesser-taxable services. Valentine’s example presented the evolution of movies – purchasing a ticket or downloading a movie results in sales tax; however, streaming the same movie results in no sales tax.
In Mapleton, we understand an urgency to diversify our tax base. This is no different than the wisdom in an individual diversifying an investment portfolio. In the City’s case, this includes filling designated commercial zones (primarily along Highway 89). In my meetings with community members, there has been some concern expressed that we’re too small for retail and services (such as medical offices) do not contribute as significantly. Would a tax reform that broadens the tax base without increasing overall taxes be a potential help for our City’s portfolio? (Yep.)
At the Workshop, potential solutions currently being modeled and some new ideas were discussed, some of which would require a State Constitution modification. Among these conversations included: raising taxes, eliminating exemptions and earmarks, increasing sales tax on groceries and/or services, changing the allocations for income and/or property taxes, and reducing non-taxable federal lands.
One thing I’ve repeatedly said is that win or lose, the process of running for office has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life (and I’m just getting started). The knowledge I’ve gained and people I’ve met are irreplaceable. However, one thing has become abundantly clear and that is this: all politics are local politics. If you don’t think tax reform will impact our community or you personally, consider the examples I’ve noted here – it gets a bit personal, right?
If you’re interested in getting involved, the State Tax Commission is calling for feedback and ideas. Visit the website at https://tax.utah.gov/ for information on all-things-tax, reach out to them at https://tax.utah.gov/contact, or reach out directly to Commissioner Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org.