Midway is in the process of making a masterpiece out of a little mountain town. There is a lot to do, but the elected officials and residents are ready for it. This crucial creation begins with Midway’s general plan, which is being rewritten to ready it for the influx of people finding their way to this beautiful, once-hidden location.
By carefully crafting its general plan, the city is attempting to protect its lifestyle and rural feel, while still providing refuge for weary travelers searching for a new home.
Midway’s mayor Celeste Johnson explained, “The general plan is something that guides all of the decisions we make, and the state requires that we revisit it every five years. Midway’s very proactive on their general plan, and this every five year process has been pretty intense every time.”
For this most recent review, Midway was granted a six-month moratorium on new projects, in an attempt to get in front of the exploding growth. “A moratorium is a double-edged sword,” Mayor Johnson said. “As soon as a developer finds out you’re going to do a moratorium, they’ll do everything in their power to vest before that moratorium happens. And so what you end up with is this huge workload … and it takes months and months to get through that, and now the moratorium is over … That backlog is the other side of that double-edged sword.”
The city dealt with the backlog when the moratorium was over, except for a continuation on what’s called a notice of pending ordinance. This means that the city has six months to complete work on about six codes. Development projects needing these codes can be approved conditionally, but must wait for the ordinances to be finalized with the city. The building is mostly on again. But that short, six-month break provided a huge opportunity for the city to gather information and organize strategies.
General plan meetings were held in December and January; an all-inclusive survey was administered for public input; and an open house was held in March. There are ten chapters in the plan, and a committee was set up for each chapter.
“For some of these committees, the chapter is pretty good already and they’re only going to tweak it and they’ll be done. Some of these chapters are going to need major overhauls,” explained Mayor Johnson. “Our affordable housing chapter is going to need a major overhaul. Our open space chapter was just written 2 years ago, so it’s going to need just a little bit of tweaking.”
All of this public interest has provided Midway’s government with a clear picture of residents’ priorities for their city. “The beauty of Midway tends to just be that we want more of what we just had. Hands down, every survey, everything we’ve ever done, trails is the number one priority in this community. So we know that we’ll continue to connect our trail system and improve our trail system,” Mayor Johnson said.
Also, some people would like to see different kinds of activities in the different parks. So, Mayor Johnson suggested that maybe instead of fixing antiquated playground equipment, the city could take that out and put some more creative options in those playgrounds, such as zip lines, and ADA-compatible options.
Open space is another huge priority in Midway. A five-million dollar bond was passed recently, and the city has been making the most of it. They still have 1.5 million left for preserving space, after already saving almost 300 acres from development! Mayor Johnson explained, “When we use that money, we try to get matching funds and really stretch that out as much as we can.”
Midway has been doing an amazing job making those funds last. The Kohler Dairy project cost seven-million dollars, but Midway only had to use one-million. Wasatch County and Utah Open Land provided money to complete the purchase, by gathering federal money and other grants. Landowners have been stepping in to help too. For example, Kem Gardner of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute owns property in Midway. When he found out the bond had passed, he approached Midway about preserving his land. One-million dollars was approved to save some of his property for open space. But after it had all been approved, Gardner offered to give the one-million back on the condition that it be used to improve the land with trails and other options for public use. “Those are the kinds of beautiful things that happen when people understand that this is a priority,” said the mayor.
Growth is also a major issue facing the city and their crafting of the general plan. The city has about 6,000 residents now and could possibly have as many as 12,000-15,000 in the near future. But Mayor Johnson and the city council are prepared. They’ve done several innovative things to get in front of the growth and preserve Midway. Some examples are increasing setbacks to protect view corridors and putting options in place, such as rural preservation subdivisions, to encourage developers not to build out to full density. Midway’s officials have also declined the push to change the 35 foot height restriction everywhere except for the resort zones.
Affordable housing is another issue. “That is the million dollar question,” said Mayor Johnson. “That is a national crisis … Midway specifically is looking at two things right now. One, called a fee in leu, would mean that if a developer is doing a project, they would pay a certain amount on each lot to be used somewhere in the county to create affordable housing. Another option would be selling deed-restricted property to developers.”
Even tiny homes could play a part. “There would be some charming ways to create tiny home, European-looking villages, that would totally fit Midway,” Mayor Johnson stated. “So we would absolutely take a look at that. But we would have to adjust our code to make it work. And we’re willing to do that.” She continued, “We hope to start getting some solutions. We’re way behind the 8-ball up here on that. The growth hit us all off guard … We have elected officials who weren’t prepared, myself included, for what that means.”
Midway has already been coming up with some ingenious ideas to protect its culture. One of the most impressive ways was how the resort tax stayed in place. The clock was ticking, and Midway didn’t have enough nightly rentals to continue as a resort town. But then, at the very last hour, a resident came up with a plan — annex the Wasatch campground into the city of Midway. The city jumped on this brilliant idea, and the resort designation survived. In the future, Mountain Spa will offer some additional nightly rentals, along with a hybrid open space conservation project — forty acres around Mountain Spa have been preserved in perpetuity for agricultural use. These lots will be sold as deed-restricted agricultural lots, again keeping Midway’s open space open.
“We’ve done everything we can to create some boundaries that will make our growth smart and protect our view corridors … protect the feel that we believe Midway is, which is somewhat eclectic, somewhat resort, somewhat rural, somewhat agricultural, and it’s also, well, the victorian houses on main street, there’s nothing Swiss about those; that’s British. But we like that eclectic feel,” Mayor Johnson laughed. The city even created code language specifically to protect those British historic homes. If they become commercial, some requirements would be waived in an effort to discourage developers from tearing them down.
With all of the changes taking place, Mayor Johnson had plenty of praise for the residents of Midway. “I’m very proud of how engaged Midway is as a community and how willing they are to come together and discuss options and alternatives; how willing they are to learn the facts and to find out what the limitations are that we have to work within; and that guiding volunteerism that we have here — I love that they’re willing to come forward and help with solutions.”
This new general plan, with all of its built-in encouragement to maintain Midway as a little piece of heaven, might be just enough to create a living work of art in the Heber Valley.