Local governments’ bold moves in 2019

The Times-Independent had a reporter at every regular city and county council meeting in 2019. We won’t alter the game plan in 2020. It’s too important to ignore, because the problems our elected officials face can be seemingly insurmountable.

doug mcmurdo
Doug McMurdo

Is it too late to build a bypass to divert big trucks and anyone else not stopping in Moab? How do we protect resources when two or three million visitors a year flush toilets, shower, generate trash, and drive on roads?

How do we create the infrastructure to support all those tourists? Where do we find the balance between welcoming them and mitigating their impacts?

Some stories are one and done. Others deserve a three- or four-part series. And still others never go away; they just evolve, like life itself.

The myriad challenges of providing services in Moab and Grand County forced local governments to take aggressive steps in 2019, from establishing a new zoning overlay to incentivize the construction of higher density affordable housing, to implementing controversial moratoria on new overnight lodging developments, to the monumental task of crafting a new form of county government.

The county council’s housing overlay has been a smashing success if the number of projects now in the pipeline are any indication. But the city council’s Planned Affordable Development ordinance has not gained traction at all, due in large part to these three reasons: Opposition from current homeowners who don’t want to see high-density projects change the character of their neighborhoods, a critically limited amount of buildable land, and parcels that are considerably more expensive than what can be found in unincorporated Grand County.

The obvious cause and effect that prompted local officials to pursue the moratoria and think way outside of the affordable housing box is a booming tourism economy that brings in tons of tourists and rivers of revenue. But the hospitality industry doesn’t pay the best wages, certainly not enough for most workers to rent a home for their families, much less buy one.

And all those tourists with all their dollars inspire hoteliers to invest in Moab, but not too many homebuilders – and not too many other types of businesses that a bustling city and county needs.

The current county council will exist for two more years. Candidates for the five seats open in 2020 will run for two years instead of the traditional four before the new form of government begins in January 2023. Voters will decide the next form of government. If they approve what the hard-working Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee has created, it will be a partisan, five-person council that handles legislative matters and a manager who has executive authority. Elections will be at-large.

If they reject the study committee’s work, the county will be governed by a three-person commission, which will have both legislative and executive powers.

While the committee’s work is finished, pending Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan’s review, the coming change in government is a subject that will undoubtedly be discussed for at least the first 11 months of 2020.

Equally certain is that the county and city will continue to wrestle with overnight lodging. There are more overnight units, about 4,500, than residential units in Grand County, and that figure is going to get even more lopsided. The number of projects already in the pipeline and are exempt from the moratoria will increase the number of units by 38 percent.

The number of tourists and how to accommodate them without driving ourselves crazy is also a problem that has no solution in sight. From degrading the tourist experience at too-crowded Arches National Park to degrading the locals’ experience everywhere else, the congestion can be overwhelming at times.

It’s in our DNA to criticize the government, and oftentimes that criticism is well earned. But nobody can say the elected officials here are kicking any cans down the road. Some bold steps were taken in 2019. I don’t expect things to be any different in 2020.