Proposed highway in Utah’s Heber Valley worries open space advocates

Heber • Dropping into the Heber Valley is like finding a slice of heaven — there’s the wild and winding Provo River, verdant green fields and spectacular views of Mount Timpanogos, the second-highest peak in Utah’s Wasatch Range.

With all its beauty and open space, it’s no wonder people are moving to the area in droves. It’s conveniently close to jobs in Provo and Park City. It has easy access to an outdoor wonderland, from world-class skiing at Deer Valley to hiking and biking at Wasatch State Park to boating and fishing on Jordanelle Reservoir. Wasatch County was the second-fastest growing county in Utah last year, and its population surged by 40% in the last decade, KPCW reports.

Venture to downtown Heber City and the growing pains become clear. A mash-up of semi trucks, RVs, boat trailers and commuter traffic clogs many intersections, particularly at rush hour.

Some residents worry that as the cars pile up, Heber Valley is about to lose what makes it special.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The setting sun is reflected along the middle Provo River, a blue ribbon fishery, popular among anglers on Aug. 24, 2022. A proposed bypass highway meant to ease downtown traffic in Heber City will gobble up some of the last agricultural land and open space left in the area just east of the river.

“When I started on City Council,” said former Heber Mayor Kelleen Potter, “it was the No. 1 thing everyone was talking about — ‘we’ve got to do something about Main Street.’”

Heber’s traffic problems largely stem from the convergence of three major highways — U.S. 40, U.S. 189 and State Route 32. All the motorists on those roads squeeze onto Heber’s quaint four-lane Main Street, creating a headache downtown.

“I’ve been here 30 years and the traffic has doubled and doubled again,” said Mike Johnston, a City Council member who owns a land surveying and civil engineering business right off the main drag. “You can’t cross Main Street, you can’t turn left. … There’s noise pollution, air pollution, you can’t even talk to someone on Main Street, you have to yell.”

Heber City had long explored the idea of a road that bypassed Main Street east of town, away from all the businesses and homes. But before all the rapid growth, the notion met resistance.

“About 20 years ago, [the Utah Department of Transportation] had the money, they were ready to do it,” Potter said, “and Main Street businesses said ‘no, we don’t want to lose this traffic.’”

In the years since, Heber has developed its east side, with any viable route for a bypass there replaced by subdivisions. But those new homes continue to bring more traffic to town. When Potter became mayor in 2018, she decided something needed to be done.

The above timelapse shows how Wasatch County has rapidly grown over the decades, particularly in Heber City to the east. The Heber Valley’s north fields have largely remained unchanged open space, however, apart from restoration to the Provo River which returned it to a more natural and meandering path.

“People [had] started to say, ‘What’s the point, all it does is divert people a couple miles from Main Street. No one is going to use it,’ ” Potter said.

Then she had a meeting with former Gov. Gary Herbert, who she said floated the idea of something bigger.

“The governor said, ‘Why don’t you just make that bypass U.S. 40 and make the downtown road your Main Street?’” Potter recalled. “We need to let Heber reclaim their Main Street.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The north fields of Wasatch County are visible on Aug. 24, 2022. Property owners worry that as the population of nearby Heber City booms, a proposed bypass highway meant to ease downtown traffic will gobble up some of the last agricultural land and open space left in the area. A couple of plans show a new road cutting through the center of this landscape splintering off the intersection of Highway 40 and North River Road.

The city tapped UDOT to conduct a review, which started in 2020. The department held community meetings where all ideas were on the table, from tunneling a highway under Main Street to creating dual one-way mega roads through town to reversable lanes that could handle either northbound or southbound traffic depending on the time of day. It also included alternative bypasses east and west of town.

But the preferred routes that emerged in the last year or so took many landowners in Heber Valley’s pastoral north fields by surprise.

Eyes on the last remaining open land

Many Heber Valley residents agree the 3,000 acres on the north end are breathtaking and increasingly rare.

“It’s the agricultural center of this valley,” said Dan Simmons, who owns about 150 acres in the north fields. “It’s the thing that gives it its sense of place.”

It’s also some of the last open space left in rapidly growing Wasatch County. Both the county and Heber City have highlighted it as an area worth saving in master plans and visioning documents.

But when UDOT whittled down about two dozen bypass routes to five and unveiled them in the spring, all were on the valley’s west side. Two (shown as options 4 and 5 in the graphic) directly bisect the north fields.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“Heber City has not taken care of their own traffic problems, they’ve allowed growth,” said Laren Gertsch, a farmer who grows hay and raises cattle on a couple hundred acres in the fields. “And now the easy answer is let’s draw a line out through the fields where there’s no homes, where there’s nothing else.”

Landowners have expressed frustration over the significant amount of property they already gave up through eminent domain for the Provo River Restoration, which reintroduced the river’s natural meanders and wetlands, vastly improving fish habitat. Some of UDOT’s proposed roads run directly adjacent to the restoration site, which seems all but sure to impact the river from construction activity and pollutants running off the resulting road.

“We are scared to death about the impact it’s gonna have to the surface water,” Gertsch said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laren Gertsch of Midway points out the path of a proposed bypass highway that would cut through the north fields of Wasatch County on Aug. 24, 2022, meant to ease traffic in Heber City. Property owners like Gertsch are concerned that such a bypass would gobble up some of the last agricultural land and open space left in the area and dramatically change the valley.

But UDOT determined Heber’s Main Street will become a “failing” road by 2050, with travel times lasting about 19 minutes compared to 10 minutes and 40 seconds in 2019. Traffic in the city’s 35-mile-per-hour zone could back up on the highway into 65-mile-per-hour zones, creating unsafe conditions.

With a bypass highway running through the north fields, UDOT determined, commute times would drop to around 8 minutes. The department gave the project a price tag of nearly $200 million.

Proponents of preserving the open space and historical agriculture found in the north fields find it unfathomable that the state would invest in a road ripping through the area just to save a few minutes on drivers’ commute. They formed a coalition, part of Friends of Heber Valley, to raise awareness about the bypass road plans and organize their opposition.

“Heber Valley is filling up with homes,” said Alice Hicken, whose family has owned land in the north fields since Ulysses S. Grant was president. “It’s been a beautiful valley, [but] we have two things left: We have Timpanogos and we have the north fields.”

Where the traffic goes

UDOT’s own studies found that about half the current traffic using Main Street is local residents. Opponents of paving the northern open space say those drivers likely won’t use the bypass road running through the fields anyway.

“Heber has always had a Highway Main Street as its center of town. That’s how the traffic goes,” Simmons said. “All of the building is occurring on the east side, so building a highway through here on the west side does not take them home.”

And while Heber City has been busy annexing land north and east of town to keep pace with the clip of development, the north fields remain part of unincorporated Wasatch County. The County Council, for its part, adopted a resolution in July that expressed opposition to a road running through the north fields.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The north fields of Wasatch County are visible on Aug. 24, 2022, as sun rays filter through near Deer Creek Reservoir in the distance. Property owners worry that as the population of nearby Heber City booms, a proposed bypass highway meant to ease downtown traffic will gobble up some of the last agricultural land and open space left in the area. A couple of plans show a new road cutting through the center of this landscape.

The county cited Heber City’s own master plan, which outlines a vision to “preserve the beautiful open lands that surround us” and maps future land use in the north fields as an agricultural preservation zone.

The county also received voter approval for a $10 million bond for open space, which a new board is using to leverage conservation easements on farmland, including in the north fields.

County Manager Dustin Grabau said the County Council is united in its opposition to a road through the fields, although new members are set to take office and that position may change.

Still, Grabau said, “We very much want to preserve the rural character of our county.”

He added that both council members and staff at Wasatch County were just as surprised by the north fields bypass plan as some landowners.

“This is something that just happened out of the blue,” Simmons said of UDOT’s highway proposals that would run directly through his pastureland. “Who’s pushing for this? What’s the power behind it?”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Land owner Dan Simmons expresses concern over a proposed bypass highway where he stands, in the north fields of Wasatch County on Aug. 24, 2022. Property owners worry that as the population of nearby Heber City booms, a proposed bypass highway meant to ease downtown traffic will gobble up some of the last agricultural land and open space left in the area.

Abandoning plans, introducing others

Heidi Franco, Heber City’s current mayor and a member of the Wasatch County Open Lands Board, said the contradictions and confusion don’t end there. The city and county had plans in place for more than a decade to build a belt-style bypass route that served both the east and west sides of the valley while keeping diesel semi trucks off Main Street.

They’ve been actively collecting $10 fees from license plate registrations and buying up land in the identified corridor for years. Developers are set to build a portion of the loop on the east side.

“We really thought that was a slam dunk for UDOT, to just use the corridor,” Franco said. “That’s what the plan was, UDOT knew it too. They agreed to this all along.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group of Heber residents oppose a couple of new plans recently added by UDOT that would add a new bypass highway through the north fields meant to ease congestion around Heber City in Wasatch County. The initial proposals would primarily widen the existing highway 40 and leave alone the last agricultural land and open space in the area.

She called the two alternative plans that instead run a highway through the north fields “shocking.” And the remaining three proposed routes also only follow about half of the footprint the city and county identified for its loop.

The mayor, who took office a year ago and served on the City Council for nine years, said she has heard irrigation in the north fields recharges the aquifer Heber City depends on for its water supply. She’s worried a highway would drive away the farmers, who might then sell their land off as subdivisions and strip malls.

“Roads bring development,” Franco said. “There’s so much pressure.”

A recent report by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project found developers and speculators began buying up parcels that might prove profitable soon after UDOT announced its bypass road scoping project in 2020.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cattle graze in a field belonging to rancher Laren Gertsch on Aug. 24, 2022. Property owners worry that as the population of nearby Heber City booms, a proposed bypass highway meant to ease downtown traffic will gobble up some of the last agricultural land and open space left in the area. A couple of plans show a new road cutting through the field adjacent to the trees seen in the background.

“I don’t think they realized how disruptive it would be,” Franco said, “to the farming and grazing out there.”

In an interview, UDOT representatives said the concept of the road through the north fields came after they reviewed public comments. The department is currently working on a draft environmental impact study of its five bypass road proposals, which will be shared in the coming months.

But road planning processes are long and expensive. UDOT still hasn’t identified funding for the Heber bypass project, and it likely won’t break ground on a new highway for at least another decade.

Balancing competing interests

For their part, both Potter, the former mayor, and Johnston, the current City Council member, deny ever backing or sponsoring any one bypass alternative over another.

“I supported every proposal that was submitted,” Potter said, “as far as sending it to UDOT to be analyzed for efficiency and impact.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The north fields of Wasatch County are visible on Aug. 24, 2022. Property owners worry that as the population of nearby Heber City booms, a proposed bypass highway meant to ease downtown traffic will gobble up some of the last agricultural land and open space left in the area. A couple of plans show a new road cutting through the center of this landscape.

Many of the growing pains felt throughout Utah, Johnston said, from the controversial gondola project in Little Cottonwood Canyon to traffic in Wasatch County are “tied to our habits of driving.” He worried all the protests and controversies about the bypass project might cause UDOT to abandon its plans.

“There are plenty of cities in Utah that would love to have UDOT addressing their problems,” Johnston said. “All sorts of towns want that money.”

Potter lost her reelection bid to Franco in 2021 by 66 votes. She said opposition to the bypass from Friends of Heber Valley and the north fields coalition may be one of the reasons why.

“I get it,” Potter said. “But Heber is the economic engine of the valley. When I was the mayor looking at it, we were trying to balance all those competing interests. … They talk about preserving historic farms, but you’ve also got historic homes downtown.”

https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2023/01/10/growth-proposed-highway-divide/ Proposed highway in Utah’s Heber Valley worries open space advocates

Justin Scacco

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