How Do We Protect What We Treasure?

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Can’t we just remain a quiet little town?

Can’t we shut the door on the world?

Can’t we just putter in the back yard?

Well, not really — as the last four years has so painfully demonstrated.

So now Payson’s wrestling with its once-a-decade overhaul of the General Plan blueprint for growth, having learned some painful economic lessons as a result of a housing slump that just won’t end.

In today’s installment of our series on the General Plan, we take a look at the economic bottom line of growth. Turns out, in a low property tax town like Payson, most homes generate more demands for service than they produce in tax revenue. As a result, coming up with the money to pay for police, fire, parks and other town services depends on developing a healthy retail sector — and attracting more good, year-round jobs.

Five years ago, the town council could ignore the inexorable math of growth and development. At that time, the drop in the water table seemed to signal a limit to growth. The town council therefore imposed one of the state’s most restrictive growth ordinances — and cast a wary eye on new homes and businesses. Restrictive town ordinances discouraged newcomers — and made housing even more expensive.

Then came the crash. New development dried up. The town population dwindled. The school district shuttered an elementary school. Property values shrank.

As a result, Payson has spent the last four years waiting for the turnaround and pursuing projects like a university campus. Payson has sought to create to a stable, year-round economy to replace our addiction to boom and bust.

So we welcome the General Plan’s discussion of the economics of growth.

Of course, the plan remains short on specifics. How do you encourage cost-effective infill development, rather than expensive, service-extending leapfrog projects? How do you expand sales-tax-producing retail development, when you’re desperately dependent on limited, highway fronting locations? How do you convince residents who treasure a rural, small-town atmosphere to accept higher density development?

The town faces all those challenges in the years ahead. Clearly, the General Plan overhaul can’t answer those questions — it merely establishes priorities. Implementing the grand ideas contained in the General Plan will require vision and persistence — one project at a time.

We can only hope that the lessons of the past few years have been seared into the minds of the town council — and the voters.

Certainly, we treasure Payson’s small-town feel, safe streets, star-sprinkled nights, meandering elk and the neighborly connection to one another.

But we must also realize that only a balanced, healthy, diverse economy will make it possible to protect the things we treasure.

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