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Politics & Government

Salem residents oppose plan to nearly double the town’s number of housing units

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Courtesy Kelly Swenson
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Resident Kelly Swenson said plans for developing the agricultural land near Salem could hurt the community’s small town feeling.

Dozens of people filled the Salem City Council meeting last Wednesday to speak against a proposed D.R. Horton development — Viridian Farm. It’s planned to be a mixed density community of more than 700 acres on BYU Farm — agricultural land owned by Brigham Young University.

The development would create 2,004 housing units in the area and include clusters of new townhomes, cottages, community buildings, parks, and trails. It's one of the many new developments being planned for Salem.

The majority of residents who spoke Wednesday night were against the project, questioning its feasibility or offering alternative solutions. Most argued Salem, as a small agricultural town, doesn't have the infrastructure to support the project.

In response, Bruce Ward, city manager and engineer, said it would be the responsibility of the developer to create that over the next 15 years.

Kelly Swenson, a Salem resident who lives near BYU Farm, said she learned of the development about a year ago from a neighbor. Since then, she’s been attending as many public hearings as possible.

“I was so upset about it thinking that we were going to lose this character of our community,” Swenson said. “Salem is a really special place. We call it the last gem of Utah County.”

Swenson started a petition to put a lower density development in the area instead. It now has over 4,000 signatures. She said she knows growth in the area is inevitable, but it matters how they’ll grow and how fast it will happen.

“I know there's an affordable housing shortage,” she said. “Salem is doing their part to take care of that and they're putting a lot of those developments in places where it makes more sense. But where this BYU Farm is, there is no infrastructure.”

Over the past two decades, the average price of a house in Salem has gone up by $123,000, according to the non-profit research group Headwaters Economics. As the state experiences housing affordability issues, more developers are starting to branch out into rural areas across the Wasatch Front.

Dejan Eskic, a senior research fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said it’s not a new trend.

“We are in a housing shortage. There's a lot of housing demand,” he said.

Eskic said developers often build in rural areas because of the amount of land they’re able to purchase and because of the price.

“Some of these further out cities that are away from the major employment centers — typically they're the more affordable ones,” Eskic said. “The land is cheaper. You can bring more affordable housing to the market.”

D.R. Horton Development is working with Salem to annex the land into the city. It’s currently unincorporated county land. Over the last year the annexation has faced several protests from city and county residents.

City council members are set to vote on the annexation in the coming weeks.

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