Blog: Letter: To the Salt Lake County Council - Olympia Hills

By Justin Swain. Posted: Feb 22 2020

The following letter was written and sent to the Salt Lake County Council by Justin Swain on Feb 21, 2020:

Dear Council member,  

 First off, I would like to thank you again for all you have done and the time you have given my group and the community.  It means a lot to me that you have taken the time to hear what we all have to say and especially the time you took to come out to Herriman on the 28th.  I personally appreciate it and thank you for all your efforts.  As much of your time as you have given, I would like to ask for just a few more minutes.  I apologize for the length of this email, but it is all very important and necessary. Please take the time to read it through and truly consider its content. 

 As we approach the discussion and subsequent vote on the current Olympia Hills proposal, I would like to get very direct.  I have worked very hard to be respectful and constructive so I hope this email does not come across as anything other than that.  However, there may be a different tone than what has been present before. I will still try very hard to avoid anything resembling disrespect and I apologize ahead of time if anything seems that way.  Just know that is not my intent. Also, these concerns and issues are general and not necessarily directed at you or anyone specifically. You have always seemed very willing to listen to myself and my group and I appreciate that.  I am just trying to cast a wide net. 

 All of that being said, I am reaching a boiling over point of frustration.  As much as we have been listened to, which I do appreciate, I don’t feel that our educated and data-supported objections have been acknowledged with the validity they deserve.  I also don’t feel that our quality of life and very reasonable requests are being weighted nearly as high as what they should. I think the significantly greater impact this will have on our very specific area of the county versus the other 70% is not being given near enough attention and consideration.  I don’t mean to rehash too much of what you have already heard, but I do hope you truly consider what I am about to say and the questions I will ask and take them seriously. While I do not claim to represent all residents in the southwest valley, I do believe my views and opinions generally parallel those of a majority of individuals in this area, that being the area that will ACTUALLY be affected by this development.  

 To start, and I hope by now this goes without saying, I am very much in support of responsible and sustainable development.  I am in support of large scale, master planned communities. I am in support of a proper mix of housing types including apartments, condos, town homes, and a mix of single-family homes.  What I am not in support of is an unjustifiable level of density that has been proven ineffective and destructive in a number of significant quality of life categories. For your reference, I have attached my script from the presentation on the 28th that goes into more detail with our legitimate, data-supported, well educated, and unaddressed concerns.    

 With that being said, I suppose my first question is, are you leaning towards a vote in favor of or against the current Olympia Hills proposal?  If you are leaning towards no, I applaud you in representing the educated and well-informed citizens that you pledged to represent. If yes, can you tell me why?  When I say that, I don’t just mean a simple explanation like “housing affordability” or “necessary for growth.” At this point I believe I am entitled to more. I am entitled to a well thought out, data supported justification for a favorable vote.  I know I have personally presented a significant amount of data and historic examples against some of the fallacious justifications for this development. To be honest and direct, that level of detailed and data supported justification for the supporting principles of this development have simply not been reciprocated.  Why is it that, as residents, we have to take so much of our unpaid time doing the research that should have been done by the county, only to be given surface level anecdotes in return? Here are some of examples of just the major issues.  

  •     We need OH because we have to have master planning – No one is arguing against master planning.  What is absolutely false is to imply that a successful master plan requires an unsustainable level of density.  Approval at this irresponsible level of density will set a precedent that will continue with future development and ultimately destroy the quality of life in our area of the valley.   
  •     We need that level of density to address the housing affordability issue – My research has proven this to be incorrect.  I respectfully challenge anyone on the council to provide solid proof of high density on a large metropolitan level that has curbed rising home prices.  I feel that is a fair request given the significant amount of data that I have provided to the contrary. I would also point out that any metro areas that have even come close to success with high-density have significant public transit offerings and robust transportation infrastructures, far beyond anything the Salt Lake Valley has in place.  In the Minneapolis area for example, you are never more than a couple miles from a freeway if you live in the metro-suburban area. So take that into consideration as you look at the void of commitment to public transit and major commuter infrastructure improvements with the current plan.
  •     We need that level of density to address affordable housing – Again, my research has indicated this is false.  Affordable housing is not about density, it’s about government subsidy, financing factors, public transit, access to opportunity, slow wage growth, etc.  In fact, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI, which knows a lot more about affordable housing than any of us or anyone at the county) says that putting low income housing on the outskirts of town with no access to public transit, no access to commuter corridors, and no access to opportunity will actually run the risk of cementing them in poverty.
  •     We need the density to address the housing gap – This is just incorrect.  As stated in the presentation, we have nearly 30,000 approved units, just in the southwest corner of the valley alone!  Some of those have been approved for years and the land in questions is not even developed!  Approving massive amounts of density WILL NOT address this issue. Approving more housing doesn’t speed the approval process.  Approving more housing doesn’t address the skilled construction labor shortage that has existed since the recession. This is simply not a valid excuse.
  •     We need the density because we are growing – I believe this is a severely oversimplified argument.  For starters, we WILL run out of land regardless of how many people we pack in.  Adding density will only kick the can down the road, but the issue of running out of land is unavoidable.  The difference is, we can determine a responsible amount of growth for the land we have left and then look at how we will grow outside of SLCo and the Wasatch Front, or we can destroy our quality of life by packing in an unsustainable level of density, and then we will STILL have to look at how we will grow outside of SLCo and the Wasatch Front.  What good does it do to accommodate for another 1 million people in the valley if we destroy the quality of life? I have kids like a lot of other people in the valley so I can play the "where are my kids and grandkids going to live" game as well. I for one would much rather have my kids and grandkids live an hour or two away in a great community with a good quality of life versus living a bit closer, but in a traffic laden, pollution infested stack and pack metro area.  Here are some examples of negative impacts that unsustainable density has been PROVEN to have.
  1.   Exacerbation of housing affordability issues (as per US Census Data, The World Bank, and MGI)
  2.   Increased traffic (correlation between higher densities and higher traffic density as per the EPA at a 99 percent confidence level)
  3.   Increased pollution (correlation between higher densities and higher pollution per capita, also from the EPA as well as NASA, also at a 99 percent level of confidence)
  4.   School Overcrowding and increased depression rates, especially among adolescents (as per the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health) 

If you are leaning towards a yes vote on the current density proposed for OH, especially for any of the above reasons, can you tell me why?  Why does OH HAVE to have 6330 units? Why can’t we have a master planned community with a sustainable level of density? How is density going to increase housing affordability? How is density going to help people that need affordable housing?  How is density going to SUSTAINABLY support growth? How is OH going to disprove history, The World Bank, the US Census, the MGI, the EPA, NASA, and the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health? I and the other residents of this area deserve data supported answers to these questions as I have done with my responses above.  That is what we have provided you. With all due respect, I have grown tired of the broken record statement that “we need density” with no data or historic examples to support the idea.  We deserve more.     

In general, when the unsupported arguments above fail, we are then faced with a number of other surface level justifications for why this development at this density should be approved.  I would also like to address some of those additional justifications that go beyond the incorrect density argument specifically. 

  •     We gave the developer a list of requirements that have been met – Here is my concern with that.  Who produced that list of requirements?  Were the cities consulted? Were any resident groups consulted?  Was Bonneville Research consulted? What good is a list of requirements if it doesn’t address the issues?  Why did the list not require specific plans and funding solutions for public transit? Why did the list not require guarantees for commercial development?  Why did the list not include eliminating road mitigation strategies that have no funding? These are crucial elements that have proven issues in the past that were not addressed by “the list.”  Again, a list is only as good as what it requires. The list means nothing if it doesn’t address the issues. 
  •     We did a thorough review of the proposal after it was submitted – Let’s talk about that review.  There are some very legitimate concerns I and others have with the entire process.  With all due respect, Mayor Wilson has been on record at various times over the last two years supporting density and Olympia Hills.  She has said that she believes in density, that she has supported density and always will support density (even though she has never provided research that it works).  She is on record as saying that the developer has done everything he was asked and that OH will get approved. Those were all things said before the updated OH proposal was even complete and submitted for review!  So how could she know that he had done everything when it hadn’t even been submitted!?! Then, the “review” of the proposal was spearheaded by an organization under her oversight. Add to that the director of regional planning and transportation for the county when the “review” began has been on record as fully supporting and arguing for density and accusing people against it of being uniformed.   On top of that, midway through the review, the director position was vacated and filled by the Mayor’s policy advisor! Again, a policy advisor for a mayor that has shown clear support for density and OH form the beginning. So tell me, how are we to believe that this review was unbiased and in the best interest of the residents when the entire thing was led by people outspoken about the need for density?  The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when I was informed by Ryan Perry that the county did not consider what the proper density was for that area, rather they were given the task of reviewing the proposal and figuring out what needed to be done to “make it work.” What a horrific way to plan! We deserve better than “make it work.” We deserve unbiased decisions. We deserve sustainable, responsible planning. We deserve representation in our best interest.  “Make it work” represents none of these things.            
  •     The cities are at fault for planning, not accepting transportation funds, etc. – First off, I hear solid arguments and rebuttals on both sides.  As with anything, there are two sides to every story. I would be happy to arrange a sit-down meeting between the county and city leaders to discuss and debate these points, of which the residents have no involvement.  The reality is however, none of that matters. Whether or not the cities have planned poorly or rejected transportation funds is irrelevant. If it’s true, does that mean that tens of thousands of residents have to suffer so the county can get back at the cities?  Does that mean that I need to suffer for decisions made 5 years ago by political leaders that we have voted out? The residents of this area deserve better than being stuck in the middle of some political king of the hill battle. We deserve to have our legitimate concerns heard and have decisions made in our best interest.  Two wrongs do not make a right. Not to mention the county will just be repeating the same alleged planning mistakes of the cities by passing an MDA that doesn’t tie commercial to residential and requires no real commitment to improved transportation corridors and public transit. It will then be a game of the pot calling the kettle black while the residents suffer for the poor decisions.
  •     The CSPs will make sure this is built properly – I apologize for being so direct with this, but I believe the CSPs are a joke.  They are nebulous, subjective, poorly structured and regulated, beholden to opinion, and easily skirted by the developer once the PC Zoning is approved.  They also mean nothing once the developer has strong armed a city into incorporating after the county approves the zoning and wipes their hands clean. Otherwise, why would section 2.7 of the MDA even exist?  Because it is a plan for the county to approve the proposed zoning and density, then to pass it off on the cities that will ultimately have to deal with the mess. The MDA is full of holes and the CSPs will mitigate nothing.  I have nothing personal against the developer and I have always refrained from any unfair accusations, but history has shown his ability to exploit loopholes, build all his residential, and then avoid following through with his handshake promises.  That is not to say that he has broken any laws, but his contribution to our planning and development problems needs to be recognized. As mentioned in my presentation, the biggest mistake that the SW cities have made is trusting the promises made by the developers and not binding them to it in writing.  This MDA does exactly the same thing and will be a mess for the cities and residents to clean-up, long after the current county leadership has moved on. 

Speaking of the developer, I would just issue a respectful reminder as to who you represent.  Our elected leaders should represent the best interest of the people, not businesses and developers.  These developers are calling the people that you represent NIMBYs. These developers are accusing the people you represent of not wanting to live next to low income families.  These developers are creating fake social media profiles and attacking residents on community pages (see attached screen shot, I am happy to provide more info on how I know it is fake).  These developers are sitting in YOUR meetings telling you that our opinions don’t matter. These developers went in front of TV cameras after hearing two hours of informed, well thought out, data-supported objections and STILL called us uniformed.  So once again, do you represent the developers that attack and degrade the residents, or do you represent the thousands of people that have been and will be negatively impacted by these developers, their continued attacks, and their taking advantage of our due process?   

     In closing, I would like you to look over some short statements from the extensive affordable housing study performed by the McKinsey Global Institute.  These points support everything I have said and identify the enormous misalignment of a possible Olympia Hills approval in its current state.   

  •     Cities are the logical unit for housing planning: they can work best with the public, government agencies, and the local private sector. Only local planning using household-level data across all income bands and local decision-making can achieve community consensus and success.
  •     The existing housing stock and new units are complementary parts of the same solution. Existing housing, even in poor condition, may serve residents better by placing them where they have social connections and access to employment. Cities need to provide housing where residents can flourish, whether by building new units or supporting refurbishment, repairs, and upgrading of existing stock.
  •     Cities need to think of housing as one market, in which decisions at the top trickle down through all income groups and where market failures in any submarket have ramifications across the city.  In a vibrant housing market, building new housing for upper income segments will ultimately free up housing for middle- and lower-income groups, either for rental or ownership.
  •     Siting affordable housing on the outskirts of town runs the risk of cementing poverty, rather than alleviating it. Cities should pursue transit-oriented development (housing built around new lines and stations), open up unused public land, and have policies designed to get development started quicker (like higher taxes for land that sits idle). 

If you are leaning towards approval of the current proposal, I would be curious to know how you believe the MGI is wrong in the above study conclusions?  Again, I would like to know this along with the other questions I have presented. I feel that myself and the other residents of this area have earned more than the justifications we have heard for possible approval of this plan in its current state.  While I would certainly prefer to have proper representation from the start versus a referendum, just know that, as those you represent, we are fully prepared for that process and have already begun to mobilize. It is something that we have done before with success and it is something we will do again.  If anything, it becomes easier each time as residents become more frustrated and motivated by not being heard. We also have a significant amount of media resources and improved social media following we did not before.  

As previously stated, if I have come across as angry or upset in my tone I apologize.  The fact is I’m tired. I’m tired of spending time away from my family and my work fighting battles I shouldn’t have to fight.  I’m tired of presenting data-supported opposition and solutions, only to hear non-data supported responses. I’m tired of having to fight so hard to protect my community.  I deserve better. The community deserves better. At a minimum, we deserve well supported justification. At a minimum, we deserve a thorough, unbiased look at the proposal, not the tainted excuse for a review that we got.  We do not deserve a development to be planned without any of the proper research and then forced like a square peg in a round hole. We do not deserve to be treated like children. We do not deserve to be called names. We do not deserve to be overlooked.  You have a chance to give the residents in this area what they deserve; political representation that represents the best interest of the community, not a developer or a political agenda.     

Thank you for your time and I hope you truly consider what I have had to say.  I am more than happy to have further discussion or provide more information upon request.   

Justin Swain