Growth and development in Moab and the region continues, but just how it will shape the future for generations to come is likely to hinge on whether governmental agencies and citizens share a unified vision — or not.
Former Moab Mayor David Sakrison said there is currently no cohesive vision for the region on planned future development between the City of Moab, Grand County and San Juan County.
For now, some people, like Sakrison, are beginning to refer to the area in northern San Juan County as “Moab South.” This area is within close proximity to Moab near the Grand and San Juan county line.
But instead of moving forward with the creation of a second city — “Moab South” would be the largest city in San Juan County, Sakrison said — he instead supports a discussion to annex that land in the valley into the City of Moab. This idea includes the land south of Moab in Grand County, extending over the county line into San Juan County, where private land and SITLA land could potentially be developed and annexed into the City of Moab. Moab, then, would grow to straddle both counties.
“I think it’s worthy of discussion. Let’s have a discussion. Let’s talk to San Juan County, let’s talk to residents and see if there’s any interest,” Sakrison said.
Sakrison, for his part, said annexing the land into the City of Moab would give the city government more control over what happens in the development of area, and it’s part of the reason that he started a discussion about the region’s planning in the 1990s.
“At one point in time, Moab City Council, to a certain extent, and Grand County Council government, looked at envisioning Utah for the planning process. We wanted San Juan County to be a part of that as well. It never got off the ground,” Sakrison said.
Envisioning the future of the region as a collective whole may have never “gotten off the ground,” according to Sakrison, but it hasn’t stopped the planning process for commercial and residential growth in Grand and San Juan counties. Recent long-term demographic and economic projections presented to the Utah Association of County Governments — the unifying voice for county government — by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel predicts a solid and steady pace of growth to the region in the coming decades.
As close proximity of development in San Juan County continues, Sakrison and others in Grand County say it is a “big issue” for the Moab area.
“San Juan County and the State of Utah’s plans for the south end of Moab valley, it’s pretty extensive,” said Dave Bierschied, broker and owner of Moab Realty.
Bierschied said he attended one of the public meetings where San Juan County officials discussed its development and use plan for land south of Moab, and said a master plan is currently under review by San Juan County.
“It’s public record,” Bierschied said. “Over the next 30 years, it would accommodate up to an additional 20,000 residents.”
But the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel’s recent demographic projections given to the Utah Association of County Governments in June show that San Juan County’s population is predicted to increase in that time by just 4,389 residents — from16,714 in 2018, to 21,103 in 2050.
Whether the northern San Juan County area nearest to Moab increases by 20,000 residents, or 4,000, Sakrison said a discussion needs to begin on the vision for planned development in the region.
“It’s a growth issue. First of all, is it sustainable growth? Can it be sustainable? Where do we want to be?” Sakrison said. “There is no vision, and I think we need to have a vision as to what we want to be, how big we want to be, do we have enough resources to support a grandiose vision.”
Without any discussion on the vision for development in the region, Sakrison said there is likely to be conflict between competing stakeholders.
Bierschied, while not saying if he supported the annexation idea, agreed with Sakrison that without a clearer plan there would likely be disagreements between the governing entities as growth and development continues.
“If the City of Moab doesn’t cooperate or get involved, it can cause conflict. There may be conflict between Grand County, San Juan County, Moab City and ‘Moab South,’” Bierschied said.
Bierschied said there are two different discussions happening currently about land annexation to the City of Moab.
“One is annexing small parcels of land around the edges of the city limits to accommodate growth, mostly commercial,” Bierschied said. “That’s one issue, which normally isn’t an issue, until a neighbor says, ‘Uh-oh, there’s a nightly rental that’s going to be beside me, and I don’t like it.”
As for the second discussion around land annexation, the one supported by Sakrison, Bierschied said, “If you’re talking annexation of the whole valley, that’s a political movement. That would have to be initiated by Grand County residents, because San Juan County wouldn’t like it — they wouldn’t have the control over ‘Moab South’ if it was (annexed) into the City of Moab.”
CURRENT MAYOR SAYS COUNCIL NEEDS TO BE READY TO DEAL WITH ANNEXATION REQUESTS
Moab’s current mayor, Emily Niehaus, traveled to Park City in June to discuss land use and annexation at a meeting hosted by the League of Cities and Towns.
“It’s a complicated process,” Niehaus said in an email following the meeting.
“Just last fall, a property owner filed a petition to annex into the city,” Niehaus said. “The owners ultimately withdrew the petition due to not having public support. They were asking for a commercial/residential split in zoning. There will likely be more property owners asking to be annexed, and this council needs to be informed of the process to make good decisions regarding annexation.”
When asked what she thinks about Sakrison’s remarks on discussing land annexation of the valley region into the City of Moab, Niehaus said, “I respect former mayor Dave’s interest in annexation. I am encouraged to work with Grand and San Juan counties to collaborate in managing the growth in our valley.”
The most recent petition for annexation of Grand County land into the City of Moab that was filed in 2017 and later withdrawn was by Kelly Shumway, manager at KM Real Estate Enterprises, LLC.
The annexation petition was for 10 acres of rural residential land where city limits meet the Grand County line at 963 N. 500 West and 1001 N. 500 West. Shumway’s annexation petition also asked for a re-zoning of the property from rural residential to higher density residential and commercial.
The petition, in part, had some public support before it was withdrawn after being tabled at three Moab City Council meetings.
For example, Red Cliffs owner Colin Fryer wrote a letter to the city council in support of the higher density residential zoning, saying that an apartment building in the city would help with the affordable housing shortage in Moab that is impacting employers who can’t retain employees.
But when notices of the annexation petition were mailed to the residents in the surrounding area, a majority of the neighbors responded with support for the land annexed to remain zoned residential only, and voiced concerns over re-zoning for commercial and higher density residential use.
“LET’S HAVE A DISCUSSION”
The thousands of stakeholders, business owners and taxpayers in the region, when given the right to weigh in on land annexation petitions in the region, are unlikely to all agree. As demonstrated by the most recent annexation petition filed in 2017, similar land-use disagreements in the future could delay land annexation petitions from progressing.
“I really, honestly think it’s an important issue,” Sakrison said. “We need to look at it critically, geographically, and see what can and cannot be done. Let’s have a discussion. There has to be political will on all the parties parts. It’s a pretty big apple to bite.”
But developing a unified vision for Spanish Valley remains a complicated goal
“I respect former mayor Dave’s interest in annexation. I am encouraged to work with Grand and San Juan counties to collaborate in managing the growth in our valley.”