45 Roadblocks for Subdivision Approval in Unincorporated Utah County

September 8, 2021

Dear Commissioners Lee, Gardner, and Sakievich:

Commissioner Sakievich asked me to compile a list of roadblocks we encountered during our 18-year, unsuccessful quest to settle our land in unincorporated Utah County.

We spent the first half of my 36-year professional career saving, and much of the second half fighting Utah county so we benefit from and not lose those savings.

This long document is worth your time to read.

Yours is the first non-hostile threesome of commissioners in this century who work in dignified harmony. Together you can constructively solve these problems.

After the original intent for pioneer settlement was lost, an incorrect idea developed that it was the county’s duty to hold county lands in reserve for the expansion of the cities, so they passed regulations to make settlement nearly impossible.

We are now seeing its effects. Today regulations are the major cause of the county wide housing shortage, forcing 96% of citizens to live inside incorporated cities which comprise just 4% of the land. Farming used to be a path to prosperity for hardworking young couples but today only the upper middle class and wealthy can afford to buy, build and settle a county parcel.

As cities ran out of buildable lots, prices rose for both city lots and county parcels, making county parcels too expensive to develop and too costly to buy for farming. Today families are separated as children leave Utah for cheaper housing, and stressed Utah high tech companies struggle to find affordable housing for their employees.

Approximately only a dozen county parcels annually receive subdivision approval. Contrast that to pioneer days when local governments existed primarily to defend private property rights and settlers were free to immediately move onto their platted city lots and get to work.

Definitions

Water rights — Underground water rights allow below surface water to be used. Within five years after approval, the Utah Division of Water Rights requires engineer-certified proof of designated use which certifies the water was used as specified at the time of application for culinary, livestock or farming; otherwise, owners will lose their water rights and must cement up their wells. Citizens never really own their water rights because the state reserves the right to confiscate them for the greater public good.

Water shares — Above ground water shares are used for flood irrigation. Only a small percentage of county land can be reached by irrigation ditches.

Roadblocks to subdivision approval

Please fact check and ask your departments for corresponding regulations. I’ve tried to list roadblocks as action items

1. To experience the pain yourself, sit through the new subdivision kickoff meetings. Film and share them online with the public.

These meetings by Planning and Zoning, Environmental Health, Public Works, and UDOT are so lengthy and list so many confusing to-dos that most sane people will give up. Any entity a developer must deal with should present including the Planning Commission, Fire Marshall, County Attorney, Recorder and Assessor.

Ask officials to outline potential roadblocks and present with full disclosure. Invite contractors, surveyors, engineers, title companies, Realtors and successful subdivision developers to listen and describe the roadblocks they encountered, and for county employees to give you copies of the corresponding regulations.

2. Create RFCs for all county regulations

It is painfully obvious the county regulations are outdated, commissioners rather than work directly with stakeholders will primarily rely upon the Planning Commission and unelected staff to supply the answers, the busy public rarely attends commissioner meetings to offer one-way constructive advice during the two minutes they are allowed to speak, and there is no forum of best practices for people who have succeeded working with Utah County.

This is opposite how industry works where products are developed with customers.

One proven solution is to move all county regulations to RFCs. A Request for Comments (RFC) patterned after the Internet RFCs is developed in joint cooperation by the public, corporations and governments. They allow for all stakeholders to remotely share their knowledge, ideas and lessons learned to create and revise standards. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Request_for_Comments

RFCs are now used by government entities such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Although some staff may initially view RFCs as a threat to their employment, they will quickly discover their benefits and may get involved in useful ways such as becoming major contributors. By moving all regulations to RFCs, Utah County will become a model for technical innovation for all local governments to follow.

3. Pre-approve parcels for subdivision, pending to-dos

Very few banks will lend on unimproved parcels, especially absent the water required for subdivision approval. With pre-approval pending to-dos to be completed, land valuations will rise and larger farm and development loans may be obtained.

4. Allow subdivision to-dos to be checked off as completed

Currently all to-dos must be done before a subdivision application may be submitted. Once a to-do is completed, nobody wants to revisit or pay for it again especially if it was costly, time-consuming, interferes with farming, or the government assigned an arbitrary expiration date.

When the checklist is complete, unless an exception must be considered, perhaps even final commissioner approval can be automatic.

5. Approve alternative energy sources for primary power

Only electrical power installed by a utility company may be used for primary power, which can be extremely costly especially if it is far away and financially not feasible.

Approve clean energy alternatives such as wind, solar and geothermal for primary power so landowners may move onto their parcel, save money, and later bring in traditional utilities. Even batteries and solar power for trailers should be permitted.

6. Let landowners camp on their parcel for more than 45 days each year

…especially those who are trying to farm, develop and build. Why not 46, 90, 180 days or indefinitely? As long as peaceful owners are not harming their neighbors or the shared environment, what right does the government have to infringe on private property rights and tell people they cannot camp on their parcel? We need you to move Utah County away from Marxism where citizens must always seek the government’s permission.

7. Let landowners divide and sell-off parcels without the county’s permission 

Previously an agricultural waiver of subdivision was required to enable landowners to divide and sell parcels to fund development expenditures. What replaced it and what are its pitfalls?

8. Update the master road plan as an RFC and make it publicly available so homes are not built where roads, bridges and infrastructure are planned.

9. Create a roadmap document for subdivision approval. Include tips and best practices

Also include a chart showing critical path items so people know what to do, when to do it and why.

Examples of best practice include:

a.    Start your soil depth monitoring early because it may take a year.

b.    Complete all developer infrastructure and neighborhood to-dos rather than rely on non-cooperating new parcel owners.

c.     Resolve boundary line overlaps early in the subdivision process.

d.    Submit an application to UDOT ASAP to build a driveway or road that connects to a state road. Permits are granted on a first-come-first-serve basis so if a neighbor submits an application for a road or driveway within 350’ of where yours is planned and UDOT approves it, your application will be denied.

e.    Create a calendar reminder no more than six months before your water rights expire to remind you to file for a water rights extension with the Utah Division of Water Rights or to apply for water rights to be put into non-use. This is especially important if your water rights could expire before homes are completed and beneficial use of your water rights is proved.

10. End the public’s hoarding of unused water shares

Strawberry Water shares are attached to parcels but rarely available for purchase–we have never seen any for sale. Strawberry Water Association can provide you with a list of owners of inactive micro shares remaining on city lots that don’t have access to irrigation. Can you require all such shares to be sold or returned, and decree the rest will expire? This may be legally doable because water is a public resource.

11. End canal company hoarding of water shares

Canal companies rarely permit water shares to leave their canal districts. When they do, they may still require annual dues. As homes are built east of I-15, you’d expect those water shares to be eligible for use west of I-15 but they are not.

12. Require canal and drainage companies to give equal services to all paying members

Improved irrigation ditches aren’t required for subdivision approval but they may be necessary for the watering plan. That may require extending existing irrigation canals or improving old ones.

The Spanish Fork South Canal Company requires annual dues from us and the families to whom we sold lots but they would not pay for our ½-mile of cement irrigation ditch or maintain it–we had to pay for it at considerable cost. Later, the Anderson family who also runs the canal company used at least $100k of company funds to replace a very long stretch of cement irrigation ditch to service their farm. Please address this so canal company members who pay the same fees fairly get the same benefits.

Likewise, drainage companies collect dues but offer no services to new members. We honestly don’t know what they do with our money—we see no benefit.

13. Increase demand for local produce or stop requiring parcel owners to meet the productivity requirements of the Utah Farmland Assessment Act to be eligible for lower property taxes, especially during drought years

It is very difficult to both farm and develop–especially when the county doesn’t allow landowners to live on their undeveloped land, because there are many regulations, development costs are high and the county is slow to work with.

Historically, farmers and ranchers supplied local grocery stores and sold produce at roadside stands. Today, because Harmons, Macey’s, Walmart, Costco and Sam’s Club purchase produce internationally, more farm goods at the local farmers’ markets will not increase demand.

What can the government do to help farmers identify new markets? Can they ask grocery stores to buy locally? If there are no markets for local produce, it makes less sense to flood irrigate fruit tree orchards and plant acres of vegetable plants.

14. Allow livestock water rights for new subdivisions

Livestock consume far less water than humans because they don’t use bathrooms, wash dishes or clothing.

None of the water rights required for subdivision approval may be used for livestock. That is unacceptable and often overlooked until five years after purchase when proof of beneficial use is required, and then landowners may lose their water rights and be forced to cement their wells.

15. Reduce the required number of water rights

8.98-acre feet of water is required for a 5.25-acre parcel, which is twenty times more water than the 0.45-acre foot required for culinary use in a home. As part of the 8.98-acre feet, the county requires one-acre foot for landscaping.

For each 5.25-acre lot, developers may pay $4,500 for each water right or almost $41k total plus application, escrow and transfer fees.

Considering the shortage and skyrocketing prices of water rights, the drought, housing shortage, forecasted population growth, and no markets for more agricultural produce, please require only 0.45-acre feet of water for subdivision approval, or 1.45-acre feet if you insist on water for landscaping so owners may later buy or rent water when they can afford it.

16. Move some to-dos for pre-subdivision approval to pre-building permit

Several location-specific developer to-dos such as digging a well, conducting a soil percolation test for the wastewater treatment system and drain field, and installing an access easement are required too early for future buyers who would rather choose their locations.

17. Stop requiring the same to-dos twice

One soil and one percolation test are required for subdivision approval and new ones are later required for a building permit. Other to-dos may also be required twice.

Mandating the same to-dos after subdivision approval is not only costly it is very stressful because it infers subdivision approval is not final and a building permit denial is still possible.

18. Grandfather all subdivision requirements to the time a parcel was purchased

Consider how a single regulatory change can ruin your life after you purchase a parcel, buy water rights, build a road and install utilities.

19. Allow private roads, dead ends, cul-de-sacs; fire turnarounds in hammer-head, “T” or “Y” configurations; dirt or gravel roads, or roads built in segments.

Road construction costs makes subdivision approval unattainable for the average landowner. The mandate to build a road may not be realized until long after a parcel is purchased.

For example, county regulations require driveways to connect directly to a county or state road without passing through an inch of private roads.

The road must have a separate paved entrance and exit. 

Many of these regulations are for emergency vehicles and snow removal which are neither guaranteed but defended if liability is claimed.

Commissioner Lee is aware of these issues. The focus should be on the county’s master plan.

20. Let all undeveloped county lands enjoy greenbelt taxes

For the many reasons I’ve listed in this document, property taxes quickly become unserviceable causing land ownership in unincorporated Utah County to become a huge financial liability.

The #1 easiest way to conserve water is to allow ranchers to not irrigate just to maintain their greenbelt tax status. During droughts does the county really want citizens to use well water to irrigate their parcels and risk wells going dry?

Purchasing a parcel which is under the Utah Farmland Assessment Act (FAA) also known as greenbelt taxes requires a new application to be submitted to the county assessor with supporting documents to prove the two previous years met FAA agricultural production requirements plus profit. If a new application is not submitted within 120 days or the requirements are not met, the land is withdrawn from greenbelt status forcing five years of rollback taxes, and full property taxes for at least the next two years until a new FAA application is approved.

FAA land classifications are a racket that financially ruins lives, cause farmers to quit, and incentivizes the county assessor to police the county and file FAA rollback liens that fill the tax coffers.

At the very least, if it is shown development is being done towards subdivision approval then grant them the lowest tax rate.

Nobody should have to wait two years as we have for the verdict of the county assessor’s appeal with the State Tax Commission regarding whether we met agricultural production requirements.

21. Eliminate FAA land classifications; or use soil type and irrigation plausibility for land classifications

Although FAA land classifications are often wrong, landowners rarely challenge them because they don’t know they exist, don’t understand them, or they view their county property taxes in only two ways–full or reduced for greenbelt.

For example, dry parcels or parcels that cannot be flood irrigated should never be under an irrigation classification.

For us, disputing our Irrigation IV land classifications was a complete waste of effort because auditors ignored the fact that most of our parcels cannot be irrigated and all have extremely high salinity levels which make growing most produce impossible because high salinity reduces yield.

Because owning raw acreage in Utah is a liability, it must be taxed accordingly — as a liability. The cost alone for the government to deal with FAA land classifications may outweigh revenues from increased property taxes.

22. If FAA land classifications are not eliminated then eliminate the window of time each year where land classifications may be challenged

There are many reasons to challenge a land classification. One good reason is the soil salinity. BYU’s soil test lab charges just $45. They are open year-round. Test results can be used to calculate expected farm yield for more accurate land classifications. Advice is also given to amend soil. Soil tests should be considered anytime of the year to reevaluate land classifications.

23. Permit noxious weed certification any time of the year

Certification is only permitted between April 1st and September 30th despite other months being more weather friendly for tillage and easier to hire excavators.

Even if the regulation is removed tying noxious weed certification to new county subdivisions, certification is still needed to comply with the Utah Noxious Weed Act when enforcers send a violation notice.

24. Return the noxious weed certification back to the free market

Buffo’s Pest Control certified eight of our parcels. This year the Public Works inspector failed our parcels. Defending their competency, a Public Works employee argued, “We’ve passed hundreds and only these failed” ignoring that ours were cleared, sloped, laser leveled, disked and planted and should have passed four times according to the Utah Noxious Weed Act that says tillage can be used for noxious weed control.

Environmental Health shed the county of non-essential government services. They delegated soil, percolation, and water depth tests to qualified professionals.

25. Eliminate the minimum lot size for subdivision approval

Although the current minimum parcel size is 5 acres, 5.25-acres is preferable because after ¼-acre is taken out of the greenbelt taxes for a home, 5 acres can remain in the greenbelt.

There is no science to support the minimum lot size of 5 acres. Many variables must be considered including location, setbacks, water depth, percolation rate, soil type, water availability, and utilities. Mandating an arbitrary minimum without considering all variables is unfounded.

How many times have we heard larger 5-acre lots are usually untidy? Genola’s minimum lot size is 2.5 acres and it still feels rural.

Non-government professionals may be better qualified to consider all the variables in determining a minimum lot size. Consider proposals on a case-by-case basis.

26. Eliminate the minimum road frontage requirement of 250’ unless mandated by the state

There is no science to support it, although without reducing setback requirements, reducing the minimum road frontage may not leave enough room for a home, well and wastewater treatment system. UDOT also has their own requirements to consider.

Consider proposals on a case-by-case basis.

27. Eliminate boundary line setbacks for wells, homes, driveways, wastewater treatment unless mandated by the state

Variables such as soil types and percolation tests must be considered for setbacks.
Consider proposals on a case-by-case basis.

28. Eliminate contaminant restrictions for private drinking wells unless mandated by the state

There is no science to support exceeding the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) recommendations for municipal drinking water is harmful to human health.

How could anyone possibly create a controlled experiment for humans over a lifetime and reproducibly confirm test results? The state and county governments shred private property rights when they apply EPA recommendations to private drinking wells. 

Cities add fluoride which is a toxic industrial pollutant into municipal wells despite the fact that studies from Harvard and other reputable research institutions show fluoride reduces IQ in children as much as 8 basis points.

People have a right to drink whatever they want. Owners of private wells may be more health conscious and more likely to eat and drink healthier. It isn’t the government’s responsibility to restrict adults for any reason, or pretend they must under the guise of protecting children.

If necessary, file water-quality test results with the county recorder so they are discovered during a title search but let people choose for themselves what they will drink and how they will purify their water.

29. Allow water distillation

It is the most cost-friendly and healthy way to purify drinking water. Hypocritically, distillation is not approved for subdivision approval.

30. Eliminate the whole-house water filtration system requirement unless mandated by the state

There is no science to prove drinking from bathroom faucets, brushing teeth or bathing with water that exceeds even one MCL is harmful to children.

The lack of science does not stop Environmental Health from requiring a whole-house water filtration system and policing its annual maintenance.

The initial and maintenance costs of whole-house water filtration systems are enormous. Our children only drink water purified in our distiller because they know that is where they get the best water–not the tap water that smells and tastes worse.

31. Eliminate pre-subdivision water quality testing unless mandated by the state

To improve water quality test results by even one part per billion, well drillers run water for several days to flush out a new well before a water test sample is taken, wasting the equivalent of a swimming pool of water. That is unnecessary since water quality can improve over time with family usage as contaminants, pipe and welding particles are flushed out, and as new water is used from flowing aquifers.

32. Annually publish standard verbiage for subdivision plats

Several rounds of final editing and verbiage are usually required for the small print on a final subdivision plat. Repeated editing is expensive and time consuming. County employees may argue it is necessary to help protect the county against liability; however, county attorneys will use the public’s taxes to defend the county against liability. Without county approval we can buy vehicles, trailers, boats and airplanes. No county required small print is needed.

33. End the county’s monopoly on subdivision approval unless mandated by the state

Let free-market professionals offer subdivision approval services, just as title companies research and warrant real estate purchases.

34. Create maximum guaranteed wait times for county services

Our last subdivision application wasn’t processed for six months after it was submitted. I later asked how much time was spent. The county employee replied, “Just a few hours.”

We applaud Environmental Health for relieving themselves of soil, percolation and water depth tests. Now they just provide a list of qualified contractors. If the county will not delegate all county subdivision services to free market providers who have business incentives to provide timely services, then at least create maximum wait times so customers know what to expect and county employees can be accountable.

35. Ask the state to rethink Utah’s Boundary by Acquiesce

Litigation that will delay subdivision approval is too easy to file. For example, a neighbor may appeal to Utah’s Boundary by Acquiesce doctrine in an attempt to use the force of government to grant him acres of his neighbor’s land even if he rented it for many years.

A neighbor may also appeal to Utah’s Boundary by Acquiesce doctrine to demand a wavy fence line to become the boundary line even though wavy boundary lines are not desirable.

Do we really believe the Utah lawmakers’ original intent to settle mutually recognized boundaries was to enable theft?

No penalties are enforced for false claims or lost court cases as lives are wasted away and children wait indefinitely for their childhood home.

Litigation can take years to resolve.

Parcels under litigation cannot be sold because title companies won’t provide a clean title. Clear titles are also required for subdivision approval.

36. Remove the requirement for monument markers in new subdivisions

Two costly monument markers must be installed per subdivision whether it is a one- or hundred lot subdivision.

Installing monument markers is outdated—surveyors now use GPS and create real estate descriptions tied to section markers.

Monument markers can be wrongfully placed. They can also drift. Relying on monument markers can have unforeseen consequences and costs.

37. Improve the process for requesting a regulation change

To request a regulation be created, updated or deleted, a fee of $300 is mandated. It takes months to process and be discussed at a commission meeting.

The party who pays the $300 fee is given only a few minutes to speak at a commissioners’ meeting but no time to research and respond to opposing comments before a vote is taken and a decision is made.

39. Control weeds on county and state-owned lands

Counties and states aggravate the noxious weed problem by failing to maintain weeds among roads, ditches, fences, bridges, etc. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds. For example, Musk Thistle can produce approximately 10,000 seeds per plant. Each seed can stay active in the soil for seven years.

40. Allow trees in right-a-way easements

A 56’ wide easement where only 24’ is paved has 32’ of unmaintained county land. The county argues, “We need that for emergency vehicles” but will defend themselves against liability for not providing service. Trees are loved. They enrich our lives. The odds of an emergency vehicle being blocked is very, very small.

41. Eliminate bonding padding

Public Works pads bonding with an additional 20% which disincentivizes bonding and ​​incentivizes landowners to be their own general contractor and do all they can without the county’s oversight.

42. Use calendar software to notify when it is time to return bond money

Once we bonded for subdivision monument markers and then years later waited for Public Works to complete an investigation at the taxpayers’ expense to confirm they owed us money. Can they use recurring events in free Google Calendar to remind employees and citizens that bond money should be returned?

43. Provide a sample CC&R template

CC&Rs are very difficult to create, especially for small subdivisions. The county does not supply any sample legal agreements. Document best practices and what the county knows can lead to problems.

44. Fund infrastructure

The Utah County government spends $100 million annually but builds no new roads, bridges or wastewater treatment systems to enable future growth. Citizens are shocked when they learn this.

What can the county do to fund large-scale improvements? How about creative plans to pay it forward? Can you ask BYU and UVU marketing instructors to help you brainstorm?

45. Issue a statement outlining the proper role of county government so your employees have a vision to follow and citizens know what to expect

Because conservative Utah County hosts America’s Freedom Festival, people expect to embrace a vision of liberty and good government but nothing has been stated.

Summary

Deciding the government doesn’t have all the answers is absolutely essential to make progress. You must involve real stakeholders in focus groups. Over the eighteen years we’ve been developing land in the county, nobody ever invited us to participate in a focus group; instead, regulations are created in-house, behind closed doors and approved without our consent.

When a roadblock is encountered, landowners are left to themselves to stress, brainstorm and figure out what to do next. I continue to lose countless months of employment overcoming these roadblocks and writing these documents.

Government officials who say landowners are supposed to be familiar with their regulations have probably not read the IRS tax code, the U.S. Code and the Utah state regulations.

Innovation requires working with real stakeholders to develop solutions. We recommend you pause and read:

  1. Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation written by Utah entrepreneur Paul Alstrom and former BYU professor Nathan Furr
  2. Six Thinking Hats to learn how to conduct unbiased moderated focus groups with all stakeholders including government employees, landowners, developers, excavators, contractors, subcontractors, Realtors and lenders.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Stevens and Suzanne B. Stevens