Ogden Valley Planning Commission comes under scrutiny as growth booms
Brian Nicholson, Special to the Standard-Examiner
Growth can be a touchy subject in the Ogden Valley, a rugged area that’s becoming increasingly attractive to development, because of the physical beauty of the area along with skiing and other outdoor recreation options.
Indeed, grumbling by some about what they view as an unending push toward growth has triggered a debate about the officials who make some of the key decisions about development in the area. Kay Hoogland, a retired lawyer and Ogden Valley resident, sparked a storm with a pair of letters to the editor she wrote for the Ogden Valley News newspaper addressing the issue.
“I got a lot of high-fives. I got a lot of emails and phone messages from people I didn’t know,” she said. “I got statements saying thank you for doing this.”
She points her finger, in particular, at the makeup of the Ogden Valley Planning Commission, the volunteer body, appointed by Weber County commissioners, that reviews certain planning matters and development proposals pertaining to the Ogden Valley and advises county commissioners. In her view, the planning commissioners — gauging by their professional backgrounds — are skewed too heavily to the interests of builders and developers, and therefore aren’t representative enough of the broader population.
“They’re in the industry. Again, it’s appearance of conflict,” she said in an interview with the Standard-Examiner. “In truth, they’re going to be more sympathetic to a builder. They’re going to be more sympathetic to building projects.”
Ben Dorger, Standard-Examiner file photo
If they’re more sympathetic to construction, that will lead to spiraling growth in the Ogden Valley, she worries, particularly on the high-end side of things. “There will be no affordable housing. People are building bigger and bigger homes,” she said, also voicing concern about availability of water to supply new development.
She ended the first of her two columns in the Ogden Valley News with a grim charge: “Wake up, Ogden Valley residents. The system is rigged in favor of developers and builders, not the rest of us residents.”
In fact, several planning commission members are linked to building and development. Justin Torman works for a construction company. Trevor Shuman works for a construction equipment supplier. Jeffry Burton, a retired attorney, focused on real estate matters when practicing law. Dayson Johnson works for a luxury homebuilder.
Nevertheless, Torman and other planning commission members reject the notion that they’re somehow allowing haphazard, willy-nilly development, or that they have a personal stake in things. In fact, planning commission members, in deciding on the varied building requests and plans they review, stick close to the applicable laws, statutes and guidelines.
“There are laws and processes that have to be followed,” Torman said. Moreover, staff have a lot of say, and Weber County commissioners typically make the final decisions.
Torman said the Ogden Valley master plan, which guides development in the area, was crafted with input from the public, reflecting their views. Property owners, he emphasized, have rights spelled out in such documents that commissioners can’t take away — that commissioners must respect.
“If he has the legal right to develop that land, I don’t have a problem with it,” Torman said. He personally may not always like a proposal up for review, “but my personal views have to be separated from what the laws are.”
Johnson, the newest member of the planning commission after being appointed by county commissioners on April 26, said planning commissioners have limited leeway to act. Planning commission members must determine if they agree with recommendations from the Weber County Planning Division staff and whether development proposals comply with land-use law.
His selection to replace John Lewis came under particular fire from Hoogland given what she saw was Johnson’s hasty appointment, just 14 days after the opening was posted. Lewis, also a developer, said in a message to the Standard-Examiner that he stepped down from the planning commission after six years “out of an abundance of caution.” He had, at times, recused himself from action on certain planning commission matters that pertained to projects he was involved with, he said.
“The appointment was rushed and quiet, with no meaningful notice to Valley residents, who are most affected by development decisions,” Hoogland charged in her letter to the editor.
County officials, however, don’t think the issue is necessarily about the posting process, per se. The bigger thing is finding people who actually want to serve as a planning commissioner, a volunteer post that requires a notable commitment of time. Similarly, if the body does have many representatives linked in some way or another to development, it’s not by design, it’s because those are the people who show interest in the position and apply.
“We’re definitely not trying to stack the development commission. We like diversity,” said Rick Grover, director of the Weber County Planning Division. Three posts are now coming open on the commission, he noted, with applications due on July 7.
And even if developers and builders serve on the planning commission, it’s not a bad thing, maintains Jared Montgomery, an Ogden Valley Planning Commission member who runs an excavating firm. He doesn’t sense much interest in the post in the broader community.
“It makes sense to have people in the industry,” he said. “It wouldn’t make sense to put a poetry major on there.”
Shanna Francis, also a member of the planning commission and operator of the Ogden Valley News, is mindful of the heavy representation from developers and the construction industry on the body. But that’s not the only thing — she also notes the lack of women and people of color.
At the same time, Hoogland’s husband James O’Brien took aim further up — at Weber County Commissioner Gage Froerer, among others. In his own letter to the Ogden Valley News, he noted that Froerer — who defeated Francis in the GOP primary Tuesday in his bid for a second term as commissioner — received $29,000 in cash and in-kind campaign donations from the Northern Wasatch Association of Realtors. NWAR is a trade group that represents Realtors.
Such donations “beg the question whether the commissioners’ objectivity in overseeing development in the Valley has been compromised, even subconsciously, by such outsized financial support,” O’Brien wrote.
Froerer rebuffed any insinuation of misdeeds or wrongdoing. The focus of the Realtors’s group is defending private property rights, not developers, and that’s a cause that Froerer backs wholeheartedly.
“I don’t believe you have any right at all to interfere with, or take away private property rights at all,” he said. “The one thing you need to get right is, this is not developer money.”
Froerer also took issue with the timing of the varied letters in the Ogden Valley News, on the eve of the GOP primary for the county commission post sought by himself and Francis. He maintains that Francis, by publishing letters that cast county government in a grim light, was hoping to win votes for herself.
Francis, for her part, said Hoogland’s letters came unsolicited.
Hoogland “is a very bright, intelligent attorney and doesn’t need anyone telling her what to think or say,” Francis said in a message to the Standard-Examiner. “I had nothing to do with either of her articles and didn’t know either one was coming our way.”