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Murray Journal

Murray city caught between legislature, residents when it comes to new high density development

Apr 26, 2021 12:02PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Work crews have demolished the former Kmart. In its place will be a mixed-used development. (Shaun Delliskave/City Journals)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

Residents in west Murray organized in March to oppose a medium-density housing project planned on Bullion Street. At issue was the rezoning of the former Highland Boy steel mill site, currently zoned for agricultural use. The owner had petitioned to change that to allow for up to 90 residential units.

The Bullion protest represents the latest confrontation in Murray City between homeowners in single-family neighborhoods and developers seeking to convert former retail and undeveloped land into high-density housing. 

Pressure on cities to allow high-density projects comes from new legislation proposed and passed by the Utah State Legislature.  

According to Mayor Blair Camp, “City leaders across the state are also feeling intense pressure from state lawmakers to allow for more high-density housing, and some lawmakers have even sponsored bills that have attempted to take some of the local control away from cities to make development easier.”

Murray City placed a moratorium on mixed-use development proposals discussed for The Pointe on 53rd, the Sports Mall, and the former RC Willey property. Already in motion, developers will include high-density housing and retail elements on the former Kmart property.

Among the housing laws approved by the legislature is SB34, passed in 2019. The law seeks to identify barriers to moderate-income housing and requires cities and towns to submit an annual report to the state on their city’s housing demand, housing supply and housing costs.  

Murray City Chief Communication Officer Jennifer Heaps said, “Government recognizes that Utah is seeing rapidly increasing housing prices in urban areas because of strong economic and population growth. The University of Utah Gardner Institute reported that there has been a shortage of new housing units compared to households since 2011. Furthermore, they reported that a household with income below the median has a one-in-five chance of being severely cost-burdened by housing.”

Hamlet Homes, which intends to develop the Bullion property, proposes a mix of single-family homes and townhomes. After a social media uproar over the potential number of units that a developer could fit on the 8-acre site, Hamlet Homes made the unusual move to present its plans in a town hall meeting before the planning commission’s meeting. Any developer of the site will need to reckon with contaminated soil from the former mill; Hamlet proposes to mitigate it by capping it under a park.

In 2021, state lawmakers passed, and the governor signed, HB82, mandating that cities must allow most residents to rent out basement apartments inside their single-family homes. State lawmakers also approved a separate affordable housing bill, SB164, that incentivizes cities to donate land for residential developments, puts new cash toward early development of housing in rural areas, and funds new state mediation programs to stave off evictions. SB164 ratchets up requirements on cities to have detailed plans for encouraging more moderately priced homes in their boundaries. Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, the bill’s sponsor, noted that a statewide housing shortage motivates all these moves.  

One point of contention over high-density development, however, is a city’s ability to provide infrastructure to support such projects, which is what motivated Murray’s current moratorium. The city’s department heads are concerned about whether the city’s utilities and public services could handle multiple new high-density complexes. Additionally, residents have raised the issue of more students enrolling in Murray schools. 

“HB98, which was approved by the legislature but vetoed by the governor, attempted to free homebuilders from a range of city construction standards. Several state lawmakers blame cities for the housing crisis,” Heaps said.  

Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who is president of Castle Creek Homes, and Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who is CEO of the Northern Wasatch Home Builders Association, pushed HB98. During the legislative debate, Ray said the bill targets “10% to 15% of the cities that just don’t care and thumb their nose at it.” Schultz characterized a city’s infrastructures concerns as “absolutely false.” Murray legislators Senators Gene Davis, Kathleen Riebe, and Rep. Andrew Stoddard voted in favor of it, while Representatives Gayle Bennion, Karen Kwan, Carol Spackman Moss, and Mark Wheatley voted against it.

At the April 1 Planning Commission meeting, Hamlet Homes owner Michael Brodsky removed his zoning request. He indicated to the commission that he would resubmit his proposal for a zoning change with less density, as a compromise with Bullion Street residents.