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Utah’s Population Is Booming

In the last five years, approximately 100,000 more people have moved into Utah than have moved out of it. When you add natural increase (births minus deaths), Utah’s population increase in five years has surpassed the total population of Weber County. That’s a stunning achievement and a big reason why growth leadership is among the most important issues affecting the state right now.

Utah’s Population Is Growing… And Fast

Let’s put this growth in perspective. In every year since 1950, Utah’s population has increased. Our high fertility rate and strong economy in recent years add approximately 40,000 to 60,000 people to the state each year through births and in-migration. That’s a city roughly the size of Riverton or Taylorsville.

The rate of growth varies. Since 1950 the highest annual growth rate occurred in 1955 at 4.4 percent; the lowest occurred in 1964 at 0.4 percent. For the past three years, Utah’s annual population growth rate has been 1.9 percent, slightly lower than our historical average of 2.3 percent and roughly twice the comparable national growth rate.

Utah’s averaged 24,300 net in-migration annually over the past three years. We haven’t had three consecutive years of net migration in excess of 20,000 people since the 2004 to 2006 period. If net migration continues at current levels, we could repeat Utah’s growth experience of the 1990s when approximately 219,000 more people moved into the state than moved out. This growth inspired Utah’s quality growth movement, which included the creation of Envision Utah, Utah’s Quality Growth Commission, and an increased focus on planning at both the state and local levels.

Growth brings many benefits, but also significant challenges. Look no further than the congestion at Lehi intersections, lack of affordable housing in Utah’s metro counties, high traffic during the ski season in Little Cottonwood Canyon, controversy in Holladay City over the old Cottonwood Mall site, and lost viewsheds in high growth areas like Washington and Wasatch counties.

What We Can Do To Make That Growth Sustainable

It’s natural to ask the question, “What can community leaders do to ensure Utah’s growth doesn’t compromise the things we love?” I can think of a few things:

First, growth requires investment. Developing new sources of water, building new roads, providing access to public transit, educating a more diverse population, and providing social services to a larger population will require fiscally conservative Utah to open up its pocketbook. Sure, a strong economy brings in lots of tax revenue, but a strong economy also requires a significant investment.

Second, during high growth periods critical land conservation becomes essential. Growth will find every vacant lot, ridgeline, sensitive natural area, historical building, and pastureland. There are ways to preserve what we value. I like to point to the 158-acre Osguthorpe Farm in Summit County, located at the gateway of Park City it is a great example of critical land conservation. We do have the power to preserve important lands; we just have to work together, think creatively, and make it happen.

Now is the time to act if cities and counties want to set aside lands for parks and open space, if Wasatch County wants to preserve some of its agriculture heritage, if Utah County wants to keep some of its beautiful orchards and farmlands in production, if state and local governments want to set aside transportation corridors to serve future growth, and if people want to preserve critical wildlife habitat or a historical asset.  We can pay a lot now, or a lot more later.

Finally, Utah will need to double-down on long-term planning if we want to control our destiny. Utahns can let the future just happen, or we can play an active role in shaping it. I prefer the latter where we invest in data, research, and planning that helps with informed decision making. Where we act instead of being acted upon.

I once had a conversation with one of our nation’s leading quality growth thinkers. He told me the public fears growth because of a powerful sense of loss. In high-growth periods the natural environment changes right in front of our eyes. We not only feel a sense of loss, but also a loss of control.

As sentient human beings, we have the power to act and guide growth. We can make decisions that create the greatest benefit for the greatest number. It’s time for all Utahns to become informed, make our preferences known, act responsibly, and ask our elected officials to help protect what we hold dear.

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