Growth is a fact of life in American Fork, as it is on the Wasatch Front and in Utah generally. My conversations with members of the American Fork City Council included much discussion of growth and its challenges. That’s also a topic on which they often hear from residents.
This post will look at the challenges of growth generally, then focus on two perennial concerns: striking a difficult balance between regulating and facilitating development, and promoting civic engagement among the residents of large new neighborhoods.
Councilman Clark Taylor expressed his own disappointment at the loss of open space that comes with growth, but said he understands the necessity and inevitability of growth and the importance of landowners’ property rights. He recalled the City placing a moratorium on some new development for several months, a few years ago, so the City could be sure its transit-oriented development (TOD) code was fully ready.
Every council member noted the complexity of the City’s task in managing growth. Besides extending utilities and managing greater motor vehicle traffic loads, growth requires additional fire and police protection and the expansion of numerous other services. Many residents will have noticed recent projects to replace smaller water lines with larger ones, and running large new water lines to previously undeveloped parts of the city.
Parking is a related concern, and nowhere more than downtown. In fact, recent code modifications removed density limits in the downtown core — meaning, Councilman Ryan Hunter explained, that you can build whatever you can provide the parking for. “Downtown will change significantly,” he said.
He also noted that state and federal requirements complicate the City’s management of growth. Certain types of permits must be available, and there are benchmarks and quotas imposed by other levels of government for such things as affordable housing. “You try to be judicious in where it happens and how it happens,” he said.
Councilwoman Staci Carroll reported some frustrating efforts to work with other levels of government to help the City receive credit against newly imposed quotas for what is already built in the city. “We’re trying to thread the needle,” she said.
Councilman Hunter emphasized that, in the southwestern quadrant of the city, near the FrontRunner station on 200 South, the City has tried to interfere as little as possible with landowners who want keep farming there, while providing the needed infrastructure to portions of the area which are being developed. Besides acquiring some land, the City has needed temporary access through private land to install the some of the infrastructure. He praised landowners in the area for their cooperation.
I asked each council member, “If your term ended tomorrow, what accomplishments would you be proudest of, from your tenure on the council.” One of Councilwoman Carroll’s responses was the Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) established in the area near the FrontRunner station. That will smooth and speed development there, she said.
Development there has highlighted and contributed to the poor condition of a major road, 200 South, which is two lanes wide with minimal shoulders, battered from traffic and construction, and now inadequate to the traffic volume. It is a frequent subject of complaints from residents, some council members reported.
Councilman Kevin Barnes described plans for that road’s expansion to four lanes, starting soon. Councilwoman Carroll reported that there will also be a trail and noted that there are hopes in the long term for a flyover to move traffic efficiently between that neighborhood, including the FrontRunner station, and the Meadows area across the freeway. In a temporary setback, state funds for a study of that project were removed from legislation in the last legislative session.
All five council members acknowledged American Fork’s past reputation for being difficult with developers. There were two sides to that story in the past, to be sure, but the problem was widely acknowledged. When I asked the current council whether things were better or worse now, or about the same, it became clear that there is still more than one side to the question.
“It depends on who you talk to,” said Councilman Taylor. In context he may have meant “which developers you talk to,” but I found it to be true within the council as well. And when I asked whether current difficulties are the result of people, processes, understaffing, or some other cause, I received a variety of responses.
Multiple council members mentioned 100% turnover in the relevant City departments over the past several years and praised the new staff. They also pointed to open positions which have been difficult to fill in the current employment market.
Councilmen Barnes and Taylor expressed concerns about overly strict application of development codes. Both acknowledged the need to follow existing rules and laws, and change them as necessary. But Councilman Clark would like to see more “common-sense exceptions” to general rules. Councilman Barnes wants leeway for improving old homes and buildings, as opposed to new construction. He noted that people, including developers, have the right to appeal such matters to the city council itself, “but they don’t do it very often.” He cited a recent case where the Planning Department wanted to impose an expensive requirement on renovations to an old home, and the council waived that requirement unanimously when it came to them on appeal.
Councilman Shelton sees “very big room for improvement.” He cited regular contacts with frustrated developers. “The process we have on paper is awesome,” he said, but he wants a single point of contact for residents and developers, to coordinate the approvals of the Planning Department, the Engineering Department, and the Fire Marshal.
He reported his own experience, where the City initially attempted to impose requirements from which his project was legally exempt because of its small size, and insisted on a level of overengineering which baffled his builders. He described the City’s claim of the right to send projects to outside engineering firms and bill the cost to the applicant, with no indication of scope or costs in advance. He said developers have seen similar difficulties and have told him, “It’s a blank check, and it never stops – and you only find out the cost when you get a bill.”
When I asked, he said the practice meets legal muster — he was told — but he doesn’t consider it ethical.
He also cited a lack of consequences for bad actors, such as contractors who tell clients that they got a needed building permit but really didn’t, and a lack of agreement at the City as to what role the City’s legislative body, the city council, ought to play in addressing such problems.
Councilman Barnes reported talking to some developers who said the City’s processes are “not that hard” and others who say they “will never build in American Fork again.”
Councilman Hunter, who works for a construction company with projects in about two dozen cities, said he’s aware of differing opinions and perceptions among developers, but he thinks things in American Fork are improving. He said there is “plenty of room” for further improvement, but the City has made “great strides.”
Councilman Taylor told of a recent roundtable where he, Councilman Hunter, City Administrator David Bunker, and some major developers met to discuss what the City is getting right and getting wrong. “It was civil,” he said. “It was good.”
He noted that City engineers and other staff have to follow the City’s Development Code. They can’t be arbitrary. “Some of our code is archaic,” he said, and mentioned a current project to revise and modernize it.
He praised the expertise and dedication of the Planning Commission. “I really lean on them. On occasion we disagree, but they are bright, seasoned people.”
He has talked to his counterparts in other cities about rumors that American Fork is the worst place to develop. They’ve told him, “You can’t be the worst, because we’re the worst.”
Multifamily Development and Civic Engagement
Much of the new residential development in American Fork in the past several years has been large tracts of multifamily homes — apartments, condos, and townhouses. This is changing the demographics of American Fork. Notably, many residents of multifamily buildings don’t intend to put down roots there and stay — which is not bad, and there are a lot of good people there, said Councilman Barnes, but the changes pose some challenges.
Councilwoman Carroll reported hearing from residents about their concerns for growth and their dislike of high density housing — because of increased traffic, the perception (true or otherwise) of higher crime rates, and other reasons.
She expressed her own and her colleagues’ shared concerns for promoting civic engagement and a sense of community in the city’s new neighborhoods. How do you build pride in the city, help newcomers to understand its history, and help them to feel part of the community?
More than one council member described the special Steel Days parade in 2020, where the parade route wandered through every neighborhood in the city, so that crowds wouldn’t have to gather along the usual parade route. Throughout the city, they said, the route was lined with enthusiastic residents — except in some of the newer multifamily neighborhoods, where turnout was sparse.
“It’s difficult,” said Councilman Carroll. “Maybe we can hold a Steel Days event there” (in one of the new multifamily neighborhoods) to promote engagement. Additional publicity of city activities, events, and resources might also help, she said.
Councilman Taylor hopes that city celebrations will gradually draw in people from the new neighborhoods, and that the City can reach them through technology, including social media. Many of the new residents are young, hard-working families with small children, he said, who have little time to spare for civic engagement, “but we’ll keep reaching out, trying to speak to them in their language.”
Councilman Shelton described his and his wife’s frequent “Friday date night” activity: go to a different — often new — part of town each week, eat there, and walk the neighborhood.
I saw active concern among the council members for building community and promoting civic engagement citywide, but especially in new neighborhoods. There was universal acknowledgment that there is no one, simple solution. “I don’t have a magic bullet,” said Councilwoman Carroll.
Here’s a link to the next post:
And here are links to the other posts in this series:
- Water and Fiber
- City Finances and Inflation
- Miscellaneous Concerns, What They’re Proud Of, and Favorite Restaurants
- My Own Reflections
Thanks for reading!