Can Utah Keep Flying Blind in the Broad Daylight of Population Projections?

Even after a decade of slowing down, Utah’s birthrate is still second to none. Utah ranks fourth in population growth behind our western neighbors Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. Since the 1980s, Utah has continued to grow above the national average, fueled by the birthrate and in-migration. Still 40 years into a growth spurt, Utah doesn’t plan for population and housing growth. We measure and project it, but we don’t plan new houses and roads based upon a known population projection. How long can Utah continue to purposely fly blind in broad daylight even with mountains of information telling us that we will continue to be a growing place?

In January 2022, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute published “Utah Long-Term Planning Projections - A Baseline Scenario of Population and Employment Change in Utah and its Counties,” an exhaustive study that projected estimates for population, households and economic factors. The study projected that Utah will grow from 3.3 Million counted in the 2020 Federal Census to 5.5 Million in 2060. We know, with reasonable accuracy, that the population of Utah in 2060 will be 5.5 Million. 2.2 Million more people over 40 years, or 55,000 more people per year.

The study also divides the projected population growth by county. For example, Salt Lake County had 1,188,213 people in 2020 and is projected to have 1,672,102 in 2060. Salt Lake County is anticipated to grow by about 12,000 people annually, about 1% per year. Utah County will grow from 664,258 in 2020 to 1,338,222 in 2060, or about 16,850 annually and an annual percentage increase of 2.5%.

You can access the study at

Utah’s long-range populations are used in many places and things. For example, the webpage includes the following:

Government policymakers and planners around the world use population projections to gauge future demand for food, water, energy, and services, and to forecast future demographic characteristics. Population projections can alert policymakers to major trends that may affect economic development and help policymakers craft policies that can be adapted for various projection scenarios.

Even with the scale of what population projections are used for across the world, things they are not used for in Utah are land use planning and the delivery of enough housing to serve a projected population. With the reasonable knowledge of substantial population growth, Utah chooses not to require local agencies to base their land-use planning on anticipated population growth. With the knowledge of the number of people and homes needed to serve 55,000 new Utahns annually, land use planning in Utah continues to be a fiction designed to maintain status-quo ideas like the quality of life, and that growth has turned Utah into another Southern California.

Is Not Basing Land Use Planning on Population Projects a Problem?

Some will likely ask, is it a problem to not base local land-use planning on population projections? We done it this way for decades.

Yes, it’s a problem if you want to avoid Utah’s current housing crisis when the housing supply has dragged woefully behind population growth. While there are several reasons for the current housing crisis, the principal reason is diminished supply. Part of the reason for diminished supply is the reluctance of local agencies to allow more new housing and, in particular, new housing at densities that deliver as many homes as there are new Utah families.

What Needs to Change to Get Local Agencies to Base their Land Use Planning on Population Projections?

The most glaring error in Utah’s land use policy is that local agencies must have a General Plan. This long-range municipal plan covers future land use, housing, transportation and other planning elements. Still, it is an advisory document, and they are not required to make land-use decisions based upon it. With General Plans as only advisory documents, local agencies often spend little time and money preparing a General Plan and making it an authentic look at future growth. Many local agencies adopt a more expansive version of the zoning map as their general plan. If something doesn’t have a real purpose to the city or county, why make it valuable for directing population, housing and transportation growth.

Until General Plans have legal authority, local agencies will continue to use their zoning maps as their land use decision document.

What Does the State Need to Do to Require Local Agencies to Plan for the 2060 5.5 Million Projected Population?

First, the population projections are already divided into county projections. The next effort would be further to divide them by cities, towns and unincorporated communities. Each local agency would have a 40-year population projection divided into ten-year increments.

Second, the State Code requirement for General Plan preparation needs to be revised to require the General Plan to be a plan for the projected population. It needs, in ten-year increments, to plan for enough housing to accommodate the increase in families. In addition to knowing population projections, we can also estimate the division of financial resources that families will have to purchase or rent housing. More and more families will not be able to afford single-family homes on suburban lots. They will need single-family attached housing like townhomes or multi-family housing like apartments.

Third, a State reviewing agency needs to review new local agency general plans to ensure they have planned for their projected population. Local agency general plans need to be certified as covering their responsibility to house new Utahns.

Doesn’t All this Seem Heavy Handed by the State?

Yes, in Utah’s lack of requirements and guidance for local agency land use planning, this would be considered heavy-handed. However, the lack of current requirements has resulted in today’s housing crisis.

No doubt, this is a radical departure and approach in Utah terms than what we have. Today, there is little to no oversight on local agency land use planning to ensure that new Utah families find adequate and reasonably affordable housing. It again reminds me of my frequent assessment of land use planning for growth in Utah where I find myself arguing about the ravages of growth in Utah with the parent of six children.

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by Stephen G. McCutchan