Sorenson Developer Petitions for Heber City Annexation

Stream in Heber Valley Utah, USA

The developer of the Sorenson land, located just north of Heber City’s current city limits, recently filed an Annexation Petition with the Heber City Recorder requesting incorporation into Heber City. By doing so, the Sorenson developer has officially started the five‐step public process established by state statue to petition for annexation into an existing municipality. In other words: Heber City may be expanding to encompass a future development to its north.

Understandably, this news may have some Heber City residents concerned, confused or crying foul at another proposed development in our beloved valley. What many new community members and even long‐time Heber residents may not realize, however, is that this particular growth is unstoppable: the Sorenson development was entitled by Wasatch County years ago in accordance with past county zoning laws.

This development – along with numerous others slated to be developed over the coming decades – provides Heber City and its residents with one painfully valuable lesson and one critically important question:

  • The community’s involvement in crafting the city’s new General Plan is vital to preserving its vision for the future, particularly in terms of growth and development.
  • And, now that the Sorenson development is moving forward, who will have a say in how it is developed, maintained and taxed?

Sorenson Annexation and the General Plan Update

While some may question why we’re discussing an expansion of Heber City and future development before the General Plan is updated, it’s crucial to understand that these important community decisions go hand‐in‐hand.

The decisions made by our city leaders 20 years ago are just now being fully understood and realized as growth and development skyrocket. Likewise, the decisions our community makes today will greatly impact what our city looks and feels like 30 years from now.

As Heber City currently exists, the core of the city is already developed to its zoned capacity. Today’s big questions of growth, density and future development center around the city’s outer limits and the greater Wasatch County area. If you have participated in any of the ongoing community outreach meetings, open houses or online surveys during the Envision Heber 2050 Visioning Process [https://envisionheber.com/survey], you have already weighed in on the Sorenson annexation – whether you realized it or not.

Understanding that the Sorenson development was entitled by Wasatch County years ago – meaning the development of 5,000 units has already been approved – Envision Heber 2050 took this future development into account in all community discussions and proposed density maps. Throughout the public visioning process, Heber City leaders and stakeholders have asked for the community’s input on our inevitable growth and development, including the city’s possible expansion via the Sorenson annexation.

Located just to the north of Heber City’s current city limits, the Sorenson land runs along the east side of Highway 40 and is bracketed by the Jordanelle dam and State Route 32 to the north. As mentioned before, this land was entitled by Wasatch County under the zoning laws at the time of purchase.

Utah is a “private property rights” state, which gives property owners certain rights that are often transferred to a developer to develop the property. As such, Utah municipalities rely on zoning laws to channel development through the community’s desires and visions for the future.

Per state statue, when a property owner or developer applies for approval within an existing zoning district and has provided all necessary information and paid required fees, that owner or developer is then “entitled” to develop what the zone allows. These zoning approvals are not discretionary, which means the city is required to process and approve all applications that meet the city’s standards as per state law.

A Case for Annexation

So, if the developer is already entitled under previous zoning codes, how does updating the Heber City General Plan now determine how the Sorenson development is developed? The honest answer: it won’t. The updated plan will not have any legal power over zoning and development over any land in Heber City entitled under past zoning laws. These decisions were made and put into motion long ago.

The updated General Plan, however, may influence how the developer chooses to build despite past code entitlements. While the developer has every right by law to only follow the codes under which the land was entitled, a new General Plan that plainly states the values, goals and desires of Heber City – the city of which it’s seeking to join – can act as a large incentive to follow the desires of the community. More simply, annexation may provide Heber City a say in how the land is developed.

Understanding that the Sorenson development was entitled by Wasatch County years ago – meaning the development of 5,000 units has already been approved – Envision Heber 2050 took this future development into account in all community discussions and proposed density maps. Throughout the public visioning process, Heber City leaders and stakeholders have asked for the community’s input on our inevitable growth and development, including the city’s possible expansion via the Sorenson annexation.

Communities like these were the norm before the 1950s, after which towns turned toward big box stores and large parking lots – which pushed housing into subdivisions and residents away from local businesses and downtown areas. As a reaction to modern suburban sprawl in small but growing rural communities, current development trends are returning to the pre‐1950s, community‐focused models that bring people together while preserving open space and promoting local business.

In addition to possibly influencing the Sorenson development plan through our collective vision for the future of the valley, Heber City also stands to broaden its tax base with the proposed annexation. While the annexation will require an expansion of city services, the addition of 5,000 households to the city’s tax base and their effect on local business will more than make up for any associated costs in the long term.

The Annexation Petition Process

While the pace of growth within Heber City and Wasatch County has continued to accelerate over the past two decades, the annexation process and development of the Sorenson land will be much slower than current heightened development fears might suggest.

  1. There are five sequential steps in considering this type of annexation:
  2. An annexation petition must be submitted to the City Recorder
  3. City Council must accept or reject the petition for further investigation
  4. There is a protest period for affected government entities following petition certification by the City Recorder
  5. A Planning Commission review and approval
  6. City Council’s final approval or rejection of the petition

The developer recently completed the first step in the annexation process by filing an Annexation Petition and submitting it to the City Recorder. Next, by state law, the City Council will decide if  the city should further evaluate the proposed annexation and will accept or reject the petition accordingly. Rejected petitions may be amended to correct deficiencies and resubmitted. The Heber City Council is slated to decide whether to accept or reject the petition on July 16.

It is important to note that an acceptance of the petition does not establish any entitlements – it is simply the City Council following state law and moving the petition onto the third step in the process.

In the third step, the City Recorder reviews the petition with the City Attorney for compliance with state law. During this time, affected government entities may file an official protest. The fourth step, in which the developer must submit a separate application to the Planning Commission, attend Planning Commission meetings and pay substantial application fees, includes development plans and studies that will take a considerable amount of time before the petition can be reviewed and then approved or denied.

In addition to a conceptual development plan for the Sorenson area, the developer must conduct studies at its own expense, including reports on proposed population density, fiscal impact of the proposed annexation, five‐year projections of the demographic and economic base, five‐year growth projections and projected cost of government services, projected revenue to be received by the city and the projected tax impact on affected property owners.

These studies typically take at least four months to over a year to complete, at which time the City Council will assess the full proposal for approval or denial of annexation.

Ultimately, the Sorenson development is going to be built. It won’t happen overnight, and it’s unlikely to see all of the entitled units built for 30 to 40 years, but the growth is entitled and inevitable.

The question now is whether the Sorenson development and all it entails – the possibility of a new community centered around our shared values and a broadened tax base – will belong to Heber City, Wasatch County or to a new city entirely.

As a community, we need to come together in the understanding that if we do nothing to address the pressing issues of growth and development now, it will simply continue – without our input, guidance or vision for the future.