Incorporation, conservation easements may be solutions to development pressures

Editor’s note, This is the last article in a four-part series on land ownership, land development and conservation issues in the Indianola Valley. This article talks about possible solutions to some of the problems.

By Emily Olsen, The Sanpete Messenger, June 15, 2022
Sanpete County, Utah

INDIANOLA — Along the northern edge of Sanpete County, the land is dry and prone to erosion in the current unprecedented drought. After experiencing at least three wildfires in the last decade, some community members wish they had additional protections.

As in other areas of the county, Indianola residents whose wells are not producing much water as in the past are having to re-drill at a great expense in the hope that aquifer levels have simply sunk deeper into the ground.

“Just because you have a water right doesn’t guarantee the water,” Sanpete County Commissioner Scott Bartholomew explained to the Sanpete Messenger.

Little is done to monitor ground levels, not just by the county, but also by the state and federal government. The U.S. Geological Survey presently measures daily groundwater levels at only eight stations in Utah, including one north of Indianola’s LDS meetinghouse. However, aquifer levels can vary substantially from lot to lot.

This year some of Sanpete County’s unincorporated residents have opted to annex into a nearby city, if possible. They are willing to pay for monthly water bills to ensure that water will come out of a faucet or spigot when turned on. Annexing is only possible if you live within a few hundred feet of a town, so the Indianola Valley’s only comparable option would be to creat their own town.

Incorporating Indianola would give the community the power to re-zone land to meet current needs. It would also give it access to state and federal funding to assist with piping groundwater, installing fire hydrants and other utilities.

Since 2015, incorporation of towns is a function managed by the lieutenant governor’s office. A community can simply draw up a request for a feasibility study with the signatures of at least 10 percent of residents (or representation of 7 percent of the land value) in the area that they wish to incorporate.

As a municipality, Indianola would also have more power to manage water resources in the area, such as creating water storage for fire safety.

Fire council established
In 2006, Sanpete County created a fire safety ordinance that requires all new subdivisions to have at least 2,000 gallons of water storage for every lot. All of Indianola Valley’s subdivisions date prior to 2006 and are not subject to the ordinance. But the Indianola Valley still maintain a fire plan.

“Indianola has an active wildfire council,” said Sanpete County Fire Warden Thomas Petersen, who also works for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL). FFSL maintains community wildfire protection plans for communities in Sanpete County, and you can request a company of the plans through the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office.

Grants are available for pruning brush around your home and outbuildings on your property, Peterson said. FFSL recommends removing brush within 30 feet of all structures in rural areas. FFSL provides the service in some situations, and they will also make woodchips out of cut vegetation. Woodchips can be used in landscaping, garden compost, animal bedding, outdoor cooking and even playground cushioning.

Water Control
Many residents are concerned that if other landowners were to build homes and drill new wells around them, it would would negatively impact the ground and water supply. Many Indianola subdivisions were established before Sanpete County establishes its sensitive-lands zone, which limits development to one unit for every 40 acres.

For example, part of Blackhawk Mountain Estates was subdivided into 1-acre lots in the 1970s and ’80s, but it has not been developed yet. Should homes be built today on all those lots, development would be regulated by the zoning in place in the 1970s. But other requirements, such as septic tank and water quality permits, are subject to current health department standards.

On unincorporated county land, landowners much receive a permit from the health department to install a septic tank when they build a home. Under the Central Utah Public Health Department rules, a septic tank cannot be built within 1 acre of another septic tank, according to Tim Wilson, county zoning enforcement officer.

Lot management
Wilson has played an integral role in reducing the number of unregistered vehicles on lots. The maximum the county allows is four, as many unregistered vehicles are older and pose a fire hazard, in addition to being an eyesore. Wilson will work with property owners with violations to see that progress is made over time.

Conservation easements
Conservation easements may be one ultimate solution to the subdivision density problem in Indianola. This is where a nonprofit organization pays landowners not to develop.

Some communities around the state, such as Park City and Emigration Canyon, have used conservation easements to protect open space, preserve agricultural land or to protect wildlife habitat. The Bear River Land Conservancy and Utah Open Lands are private nonprofit organizations that will pay landowners to establish conservation easements.

Easements are often designed for a finite period of time, such as 75 years. Landowners who enter into easement agreements many receive annual tax deductions.

The landowners are often able to continue cattle and sheep grazing on the property. And, according to sources familiar with the easements, each one is unique and the terms are often negotiable.

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