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Op-ed: Legislators talk local control but they want to micromanage my neighborhood

Published February 24, 2016 5:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

These days, it seems to be all about smaller government with more local control and less intrusion into our lives by big government. Except when it's not. Case in point: Rep. Brad Wilson's House Bill 223, which imposes state-wide untenable restrictions on neighborhoods seeking to preserve historical and important structures in their community.

As Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, recently remarked, "We've come so far from the old principles of self-reliance, teaching correct principles and let [people] govern themselves."

HB223 (amended) makes it extremely difficult for neighborhoods to even trigger the initial process to protect important landmarks in our communities. It guts local rules carefully tailored and set in place by individual planning/zoning commissions and city councils.

This proposed legislation does four major things. The first is that at least 33 percent of a neighborhood's property owners agree to even open a discussion to consider petitioning for a Local Historic District Designation (LHD). In comparison, Salt Lake City currently requires a lower threshold of the affected owners to begin an education phase. The initial phase of any LHD is important because it allows residents to learn the facts in order to make informed decisions.

Most alarmingly, however, the bill raises a subsequent opinion balloting bar to impossible heights — a supermajority of the voters, or 66 percent of affected owners. In Salt Lake City, the voter requirement is a simple majority.

This bill's hurdle is nearly unprecedented in the legislative arena absent extraordinary examples. There is no other requirement in order for a bill to become law which requires a supermajority vote by our elected officials doing their regular business. With this provision, the historic designation efforts are essentially hopeless. Perhaps this is the point of the legislation?

Third, if a proposed historic area fails to overcome the new hurdles, any subsequent attempt must wait four years. The bill then arbitrarily cuts off at least 50 percent of the previous area seeking protection. Finally, Wilson's bill will nullify any current attempts for historic preservation that weren't completed by Jan. 1, 2016. This section, in addition to being crushing, is revealing. No other community in Utah currently has a proposed historic area designation in the pipeline except a Salt Lake City neighborhood which has two.

HB223 is unnecessary, intrusive and makes a mockery of the democratic process. Clearly, this bill targets Salt Lake City, although it would apply statewide. One can only speculate as to why a representative from Kaysville feels compelled to interject himself into an administrative process overseen by a local government not his own. Neighborhood residents have little to no influence over the bill's content. Perhaps this is understandable because we are not Wilson's constituents. This point is the very essence of the principle of local control over local issues. Government works best when its citizens have access to those making the rules — and those making the rules are accountable to those affected by decisions.

Moreover, Wilson's bill is not the first attempt by non-local legislators to control what is a Salt Lake City neighborhood issue. It seems to be a pattern: first, by Sen. Wayne Neiderhouser, R-Sandy, in 2011, and then again in 2015 by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

Local control of this issue is important because our Utah communities are not all the same. One size does not fit all, which is what this legislation would impose in draconian fashion. Moreover, whether you agree with what local historic preservation seeks to accomplish is not the point here. Most preservation efforts are an attempt to balance a myriad of important values, not just those favoring developers, builders and other real estate-related interests. Individual home owners have significant interests, too. One even might argue that the homeowners' interests outweigh those of others.

One need look no further than the restoration of the beautiful and historic Provo tabernacle to see the benefits of protecting what is rare and precious in our communities. I am only asking that we have at least the opportunity to try to do the same in a fair, balanced and democratic way. The impassable roadblocks thrown up by HB223 exemplifies government overreach and unnecessary control at its worst.

Katherine A. Fox is a retired attorney living in Salt Lake City.




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