Little Valley Case Study

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

— Mike Tyson

For the past five years, Little Valley has been the fastest growing area of Washington County and among the fastest in Utah. In just the past year, ending first quarter 2017, there were a little over 500 new homes built and occupied within the Desert Hills High School boundary, which is dominated by Little Valley. The pace of growth in this part of St. George means that we have urbanized a large, discrete area very quickly. In fact, we are now close enough to the end of the planning and development process that it is possible to step back and consider what the finished outcome will be.

Photo: The Spectrum

Land Use Summary
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The Plan Versus Reality

This development outcome represents a significant departure from the municipal and regional master plans for the area. The most detailed relevant master plan is the Little Valley Sub Area Plan completed in 2007. The Sub Area Plan was written concurrently with the Vision Dixie Regional Plan for Washington County, with the Little Valley plan being a site-specific application of the regional plan’s tilt toward traditional (pre-war) development principles.

Specifically, the Sub Area Plan anticipated that about 55% of the new homes built in Little Valley would be low density single-family residences and that the entire planning area would achieve a gross density of around 3.8 homes per acre. This is frankly a pretty low residential density figure by traditional development standards, but compares with an implemented reality of 100% single-family residences, including a high number of homes on very large lots of 15,000 square feet or more, and a gross density of 2.1 homes per acre.

This significant departure from plan was not done explicitly after careful consideration of the costs and benefits of such a change of course, but through simple capitulation to Nimbys.

Live By The Car, Die By The Car

For an urbanized area of about 1,000 acres, Little Valley is an incredibly monofunctional, car-dependent form of land use.

This part of St. George has an average household size of about 3, which means it is fast approaching a total build-out population of around 6,500. This is about the same as the total population of Ivins and a bit more than towns like Kanab and Moab. And yet, because of the low number of total residences in Little Valley, there are limited civic land uses and just one small commercial corner.

This large-scale monofunctionality makes life in Little Valley extremely car dependent. From the heart of Little Valley — Crimson Ridge and 3000 East — it is three miles to the closest supermarket. (A significant commercial project may be developed at the intersection of 2450 South and 3000 East in the next few years, which will drop the distance to a supermarket and similar services to one mile. When completed, this new project will reduce travel time but not really reduce trips or otherwise fundamentally change Little Valley’s extreme car dependence.)

Unintended Consequences

The second order effects of departing from the 2007 master plan are striking in terms of both quality-of-life and public finance measures.

Quality of Life

A more efficient, compact development pattern would have considerably reduced water usage and created the critical mass of population necessary at the neighborhood scale to support a greater mix of civic and commercial land uses. By extension, a greater number of residents occupying the same land area would have resulted in more tolerable traffic conditions by reducing both the number and length of necessary car trips.

The Little Valley Sub Area Plan also anticipated much more recreation and park space. In practice, the choice was made to essentially privatize open space (in large individual lots) rather than aggregate it and make it a community amenity in the form of public parks.

Public Finance

These effects are easier to quantify than the lifestyle effects but no less eye-opening. Each new residential building permit requires the payment of $6,156 in impact fees to the city[1] and a bit more than that to the Washington County Water Conservancy District. These figures multiplied by the 2,185 new homes in Little Valley generate the combined impact fee total of about $29 million shown in the table.

That’s a lot of money, but adherence to the Sub Area Plan would have generated close to $20 million more from the same acreage just from additional residential development. In addition, the traditional development pattern enables neighborhood commercial uses, and commercial impact fees are charged at a higher rate than residential.

In rough terms, the same area could have generated not roughly $30 million but more like $55-$60 million to pay for things like water development, parks, public safety facilities, regional storm drain and sewer treatment facilities, etc. So, the primary short term public finance consequence of departing from plan is the loss to the community of a really big carrot.

The long term consequence will be a very unpleasant encounter with the stick: roughly the same system of public works that would have been required by the Sub Area Plan now serves a vastly smaller tax base. Today’s challenge of paying for the replacement of crumbling Bloomington Drive and the water line underneath it will seem like child’s play compared with dealing with the maintenance and replacement costs associated with the public works in Little Valley in 30 years or so.

[1]  The standard St. George impact fee per single-family residence is $9,802, but the power impact fee of $3,646 is not paid to St. George City in Little Valley, since it is within the Dixie Power service area.