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The topic on the forefront of local leaders’ minds, judging from the content of Thursday’s Cache Summit, is still growth.

How do we plan housing for a growing population when we’re currently facing a housing shortage? How do we meet the demands of growing businesses? How do we ensure there’s enough water to support all this growth?

How do leaders communicate these challenges to a populace that may be uneasy that “the American dream” is changing?

Justin Lee, director of government relations for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, outlined many of those challenges in the summit’s opening keynote Thursday morning at the Cache Event Center.

While many residents worry about people moving into the valley from outside Utah and Idaho, Lee said they’re not the entire problem.

To illustrate, he asked how many in attendance had children, and most hands went up. He asked how many people had grandchildren, and many stayed raised. Lee winnowed out the crowd by incrementally raising the number of grandchildren — a few had more than 25, and one had 30.

“Where are all of these grandkids and kids going to live?” Lee said. “This is the question we’ve got to figure out unless we want them all to move other places.”

How local leaders plan for growth is a high-stakes question.

“We are at an inflection point,” said Shawn Milne, Cache County economic development director. “We can decide to make the same kind of zoning and development decisions that places that once looked like us just a few decades ago and now look more metropolitan made, or we can choose a different path that will still challenge us but allow us to keep the kind of character that whether you grew up here or moved here for, it maintains a high quality of life.”

The housing shortage is connected to other important areas of valley life, Milne said. An important one from his perspective as economic development creator is job growth — if local companies are expanding but there’s not a large enough local workforce to meet their needs, they’ll start expanding elsewhere. That’s a problem, because they take tax revenue with them. In Utah, residences receive a 45% coupon on their property tax, meaning that although the same tax rates apply to commercial and residential properties, residences end up paying less.

“If you like the condition of your roads,” Milne said, “if you like the maintenance level of your parks and recreation, if you like the level of education of your schoolchildren, you better do everything you can to keep your businesses here, or be prepared to shift more of that need to pay for it to you as a resident. And most people are not going to want to voluntarily tax themselves more.”

If Cache County cities and towns want to handle the inevitable growth without sprawling across more and more formerly agricultural land, some denser housing options will be needed.

Milne’s been in his role for a little less than a year now, and in that time he’s said one of the things he hears most often is that residents don’t want Cache Valley to go the way of the Wasatch Front.

“Unfortunately,” Milne added, a culture that’s been focused on single-family housing means “what I hear from many public meetings are people asking for their elected representatives to perpetuate suburban sprawl that will ensure that we look just like the metro area in short order as we continue to grow.”

Denser housing options don’t necessarily mean mid-rise apartment buildings and larger, Lee said. One topic that’s likely to come up in the upcoming legislative session is “missing middle housing.” He showed a slide with single-family houses as the lowest density option on the left end, and big apartment buildings as the highest density on the right. In between, however, was a graduated host of options: live/work buildings, a mix of multiplexes, townhomes, “cottage courts” and others.

“When people talk about density, a lot of times the discussion really jumps from the one (extreme) to the other,” Lee said. “We’re either here on the far left where we’re talking about detached single-family houses, or we’re on the far right where we’re talking about big apartments and high density. And there’s a whole group there in the middle that fits in really well in neighborhoods and doesn’t change the character vastly.”

Even those options might make some local residents and policymakers uneasy, however.

“The idea that you could have a fourplex or a sixplex right next to your house is really troubling to a lot of people,” said Cache County Council Member Gina Worthen after Lee’s talk.

Another discussion point Lee brought up — some places in the nation talking about eliminating single-family zoning altogether — drew a strong reaction from Worthen. The council member is among the many with close relations struggling to find a place to live, but she doesn’t want to sacrifice what she sees as important cultural values to meet housing inventory demand.

“I absolutely do not support getting rid of single-family housing zones,” Worthen said. “I think that that is an American dream that also needs to be recognized and preserved. So there’s got to be some other ways to find housing.”

Accommodating that without sprawling into ag land is a complex challenge, however. When agricultural landowners die, their children are faced with the dilemma of how to split the value of the land fairly. And with demand for housing driving the land’s value up so high, resisting the pressure to develop that open space can be extremely difficult.

“We need more land to build more housing, but we’ve got to preserve agriculture,” Worthen said. “So we’ve got to come up with some ingenious ways. For instance, an idea of transferring development rights from, say, an ag property to another property where it could be a higher density.”

Another option that appeals to Worthen is the ability to rent out basements or other spaces of a home, known as accessory dwelling units and sometimes called “mother-in-law apartments.” But even those come with challenges, such as ensuring there’s enough parking to accommodate extra vehicles.

“I know that you hear a lot that kids today, they don’t want a house and a yard, they want experiences, they just want a little apartment to live in,” Worthen said. “I’ve heard from the younger generation, and they tell me that that’s not true. They do have a dream of home ownership and having their own yard that their kids can play in. So I think that we need to preserve that.”

Hyde Park Mayor Charles Wheeler said he’s seen different viewpoints. More than 180 residents have responded to a recent survey gathering input for an update to the city’s general plan, and “there is a significant majority that are in the community that are interested in seeing different kinds of housing options.”

Addressing the housing shortage and adding denser housing options aren’t crucial just for kids and lower-income earners, Milne said.

“The missing housing inventory is affecting the strata throughout, not just a low strata, not the high strata,” Milne said. “When I first came here (less than a year ago), I was in a hotel for seven months.”

Milne described his household with the acronym “DINK,” dual-income, no kids at home. Even so, it took months before they could close on a property.

“We kept losing and losing on everything from single-family detached to two condominiums,” Milne said. “We kept losing, for months on end. And we offered much more than top-end appraisal.”

Diversifying housing density doesn’t need to come at the expense of the American dream — but it may involve giving up a little bit of the focus on single-family homes.

“The access to property that builds value is absolutely the American dream,” Milne said.

Versions of that that aren’t surrounded by a white picket fence may just take a little getting used to.

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