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Wednesday, October 4, 2006
The Times Are a-Changing in American Fork

Some want in. Some want out. Either way, landowners and developers are noticing a difference between American Fork and neighboring communities. I think it's a good difference.

Don't look now, but something significant has changed in American Fork. The new administration's tendency toward restraint and concern for the future is beginning to distinguishing the city from its more laissez faire neighbors in the matter of development. Whether or not this is a happy development -- pun intended -- is a matter of opinion. I think it's a good thing, but that is not a unanimous opinion. In some cases, this seems to be repelling certain kinds of development, but in other cases it appears to be attracting interest.

Some Want to Leave

For example, I have discussed here in recent months the Carson family's desire to rezone some property on 900 West in American Fork (on our border with Lehi) to allow commercial development. A central part of their argument to the City Council in August was that their proposal would have been good enough for American Fork in the past. But they also argued that their proposal satisfies the lower standards Lehi has applied across the street. The suggestion is that American Fork has, but should not have, higher standards for such things than surrounding communities. Now there are rumors that the Carsons wish to separate their land -- the official term is disconnect -- from American Fork and be annexed into Lehi, where standards are lower and where, presumably, the welfare of an American Fork residential neighborhood won't be such a concern.

Some Want to Come

On the other side of American Fork, at the city's shared boundary with Pleasant Grove, an opposite situation has arisen. There a group of landowners is trying to disconnect from Pleasant Grove and be annexed into American Fork, partly because of American Fork's higher standards for development.

The land in question borders on Vintaro, a development recently approved under American Fork's new "planned community" ordinance. The September 15 "Request for Disconnection," is signed by landowner Stanley B. Smith on behalf of a group of owners. It cites not only American Fork's ability to provide sewer, water, and storm drain service in that area, and Pleasant Grove's failure to act in good faith to complete 2000 West (known as 1100 East in American Fork), but also notes that the change from Pleasant Grove to American Fork will promote "a more harmonious community" and "smart growth and development."

Perhaps this acknowledgment that American Fork's approach to development is more intelligent is purely for the sake of extending the list of reasons for the proposed disconnection, but it is in any case a public acknowledgment.

What's the Difference? And . . . So What?

One of the differences is that American Fork has a general plan for development, while Pleasant Grove reportedly has none. To be sure, this plan existed before Mayor Heber Thompson was sworn in on January 2. But the new administration seems to follow that plan more conscientiously than the previous administration, and it also recently created a planned community zone to facilitate intelligent, harmonious development of large tracts of still-undeveloped land, which are mostly on the city's outskirts.

I've seen real slums and ghettos in major cities, and no neighborhood I'm aware of in American Fork fully deserves either label. However, there are some areas of the city, mostly high-density, multifamily complexes, which have come to resemble slums to some extent. They seem to invite drug abuse, spouse abuse, and child abuse, among other vices. The police know them well, because of frequent visits. These areas make surrounding neighborhoods less safe, less pleasant, and less desirable. These effects are not usually obvious when a development opens, but severe deterioration may sometimes require only a few years, as Pleasant Grove is beginning to observe.

Here's why Pleasant Grove's casual approach matters to American Fork: These negative effects don't stop at municipal boundaries. Poorly planned and executed development in one city adversely affects the quality of life in nearby neighborhoods of an adjacent city.

Please note that I am not opposed in principle to high-density or multifamily development. Apartments and other housing of these types are necessary and defensible. They can be designed intelligently, to minimize negative effects. This is very much in the long-term interest of a city, but not so much in the short-term interest of a developer. So a city's intelligence and persistence in controlling development are a major issue.

A City's Options

A city interested in protecting the quality of life in neighborhoods adjacent to another city therefore relies heavily on the good will and intelligence of that neighboring city, but it cannot directly control or manage development outside its jurisdiction. So American Fork, for example, may simply cross its fingers and hope that the observed and predictable slumification of some Pleasant Grove high-density development will not spread -- a fanciful hope, at best -- or it can attempt one of these two things:

  • Where feasible, it can attempt to annex bordering, unincorporated land, bring it under the city's control. Then it can exert that control to protect the neighborhoods in question.
  • It can enter into a "development agreement" with the other city, requiring -- how enforceably I do not know -- that adjacent development in the other city meet certain standards; presumably these would be fashioned to resemble the first city's standards.

In cases where land between two cities is unincorporated, or where landowners wish to file for disconnection, the first of these options is available. Its success depends on the political will and negotiating skill of City leaders, particularly in boundary questions. Good, honorable officials -- Mayor Thompson comes to mind -- must be, to borrow a biblical phrase, not only "harmless as doves," but also "cunning as serpents." This is especially true in negotiations with officials of other cities, who may be cunning without being harmless. The current American Fork administration's ability and inclination to do this, particularly in boundary-related matters, is unproven.

Meanwhile, in the 2000 West/1100 East matter, officials are working on a boundary agreement of the sort I described. This is a good thing. Even if its ultimate enforceability can be questioned, it is at least an official agreement, involving actual ink on actual paper, and therefore offers some guidance and protection beyond the mere act of crossing one's fingers. At least it provides a foothold for exerting some influence on the neighboring city, if not the grounds for legal action.

If the City will be firm and persistent in such matters, we will see real benefits in the future.

David Rodeback comments (10/5/06):

Last evening the American Fork Planning Commission unanimously rejected the development agreement in this case, sending the parties back to the drawing board. I hope for details soon. Note also this Todd Hollingshead article in The Salt Lake Tribune, which emphasizes the road issues, but says nothing of the other issues mentioned in the disconnection request.

David Rodeback comments (10/10/06):

At tonight's American Fork City Council meeting, Stan Smith explained his turning away from Pleasant Grove as toward American Fork thusly: "We elected to find a horse that knows the way." For whatever it's worth, he also noted that Pleasant Grove won't communicate with the landowners directly, only through the newspapers. And he added, "I implore you, whatever you do with Pleasant Grove City, get it in writing."

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