It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of Wasatch County, a thousand words may be inadequate to describe the beauty and wonder that people feel while in the Heber Valley. Derived from the language of the Ute Indians, “Wasatch” literally means “mountain pass” or “low place in the high mountains.” So, what exactly is it that makes this “mountain pass” so cherished and so picturesque? For many people, the answer can be summed up in six words: Open Space and Quality of Life.
Open Space And Growth Demands
When early Latter-day Saint settlers founded Wasatch County in 1862, the area, also known as “paradise land,” consisted primarily of agricultural land and contained limited infrastructure. Over time, the land was surveyed and eventually divided into 20-acre tracts. Early settlers, including William Wall, George W. Dean and Aaron Daniels, established ranches, and later homes were built in various corners of the valley. As roads and infrastructure were developed, Wasatch County gained a reputation for its beauty, industry and hard-working people — a theme that continues to the present day.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Wasatch County has a total of 1,206 square miles, of which 1,176 square miles are land and roughly 30 square miles are water. Ashley National Forest, Uinta National Forest, and Wasatch National Forest are all found within Wasatch County. Additionally, thousands of acres of state park land are woven into Wasatch County’s beautiful tapestry. In all, approximately 68 percent of Wasatch County is publicly owned and has a small likelihood of ever being developed. With so much public land scattered throughout the county, why discuss open space? The answer lies in the details of the remaining 32 percent of land that accommodates approximately 31,000 residents.
Since hosting two of the 2002 Olympic games events, the Heber Valley area has grown by nearly 200 percent, and the growth projections indicate that Wasatch County will be home to approximately 60,000 people by the year 2040. With such unprecedented growth — both past and future — raw land has become a premium commodity for residents and businesses alike. While city and county planners and planning commissions have done their best to prepare for population growth, more effort is needed to identify and preserve critical open space.
Preserving Open Space
In early 2018, county and city leaders took a proactive step by establishing the Wasatch Open Lands Board (WOLB) with the goal of preserving agricultural and open lands in Wasatch County for the enjoyment of present and future generations. One of the primary objectives of the WOLB is to ensure the protection of farms, ranchlands, unique wildlife habitats, critical watersheds, lakes and streams, historic areas and trail corridors. The WOLB is comprised of the following representatives: two members appointed by the Wasatch County Council, one member appointed by both Midway and Heber City councils, one representative of the Heber Valley Chamber of commerce representing tourism and economic development interests, and two at-large members with experience in preserving open space.
Some may question how an open lands board will preserve agriculture and open space. Rather than forcing landowners to participate in a preservation program, all participation will be on a voluntary basis — in other words, the local governments are not seeking to take private land. Landowners wanting to preserve their lands may participate in voluntary programs which will ensure the protection of their lands in perpetuity through local funding mechanisms.
Determining Open Space
Like other local governments, Wasatch County and its cities and towns have zoning laws which permit various uses. For example, some areas of the Heber Valley are designated for commercial development, while others are dedicated to residential development. People may confuse a small, open field in a commercial area as agricultural land, when the land had been previously zoned for other purposes. An empty lot in a residential neighborhood, for example, is not typically considered “open space” while larger pastures and agricultural lands are more likely to be considered for preservation.
Areas To Preserve
Perhaps one of Heber Valley’s most iconic places is the North Fields area on the north end of the valley floor. In a sense, the North Fields serve as a welcome mat to the Heber Valley to those traveling south on Highway 40. The North Fields contain 2,827 acres of agricultural land owned by 118 land owners. The current zoning allows for one residential development per 20-acre parcel. Preserving this open space should be of the utmost importance to Wasatch County as it is part of our heritage and will be the legacy we leave to our children. As pressure for development continues to increase, preserving critical open space in the North Fields should be a top priority for county and city leaders.
Dozens of years ago, the North Village area of Wasatch County received significant development rights, and this area — located on the east side of Highway 40 (near the UVU Wasatch campus) — will continue developing substantially in the coming years. Balancing the open space of the North Fields with the major development of the North Village should be complementary priorities.
In addition to preserving open space in the North Fields, other areas of Wasatch County should be considered as worthy candidates for preservation. Many of these areas include unincorporated parts of Wasatch County and many of the rural areas of our cities and towns.
Economic Development And Open Space
While seemingly contradictory, open space leads to a strengthened economy — both for visitors and businesses throughout the Heber Valley. According to a visitor survey conducted by Heber Valley Tourism and Economic Development, an overwhelming number of visitors to the Heber Valley listed the open space and agricultural feel of the area as a major factor in their decision to visit.
In an era when health and wellness are paramount to employees of small businesses, preserving open space and creating outdoor recreational opportunities are perfect examples of achieving work-life balance. Companies that encourage active lifestyles are primed for success in the Heber Valley due to our many trails, parks and recreational opportunities. According to several business owners who recently relocated their businesses to the Heber Valley, “the lifestyle and quality of life” were the determining factors in their relocations. While commercial zones will eventually attract new businesses that contribute so much economic value to the area, agricultural zones should be preserved in a way that maintains balance between the rural and business communities.
With proper planning and visioning, the Heber Valley can achieve two crucial objectives now and into the future: maintain critical open space that leads to an unparalleled quality of life, and develop a vibrant economy that complements — and not competes with — the rural and treasured character of Wasatch County.