WASHINGTON CITY – The Washington City Council passed a resolution supporting congressional legislation that would expand the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve while also designating a possible route for a northern corridor, though not without some misgivings and heartburn along the way.
A 4-1 vote Wednesday night passed a resolution supporting Congressman Chris Stewart’s proposed Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act with a measure of trepidation concerning the impact the proposed alignment of the northern corridor could have on some of the residents of Washington City.
“A better alignment would ease my concerns,” Councilman Doug Ward said. Ward voted against the resolution.
Both Ward and Councilwoman Kolene Granger were unconvinced the current proposal for the northern corridor’s route, which would connect to Red Hills Parkway on the west and an extension of Washington Parkway on the east, would positively impact Washington City.
In particular, they noted the concerns of residents in the northern portion of the Green Springs area of the city.
Development in Green Springs has bought homes up to the current right-of-way where Washington City plans to extend Washington Parkway. The road would reach right up to the border of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, connecting to the northern corridor at that point. The proposed northern corridor itself would connect to Interstate 15 via the Exit 13/Washington Parkway interchange.
“I don’t know that giving people a short cut to Costco is worth it,” a resident of the Green Springs area said Tuesday night when the City Council held a public forum prior to a work meeting.
A number of residents from the Green Springs area spoke against the current proposal for northern corridor-Washington Parkway alignment and asked the council not to support the resolution.
“There are other places to do it,” another resident said. “We urge you to vote ‘no’ on this resolution.”
Chief among the objections were residents not wanting a busy five-lane roadway in their backyards. They also worried about the increased traffic it would create on Green Springs Drive, which already leads to one of the most congested and hated intersections in the county at I-15’s Exit 10.
Granger echoed this sentiment during Tuesday night’s resulting discussion on the matter as well as before the vote Wednesday.
“The only city that is really impacted is ours and the residents of Green Springs,” Granger said Tuesday.
Granger pushed for language to be added addressing the City Council’s concerns about the proposed corridor’s closeness to homes and resulting increase in traffic on Washington Parkway; she also urged mitigation efforts to reduce human impacts be considered.
A motion adding Granger’s proposed language passed prior to the vote Wednesday.
With the language added, Granger voted in favor of the resolution. However, she voted more for the renewal of the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan that oversees the desert tortoise habitat within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve than for the current route proposed for the northern corridor.
“There are other ways we could have connectivity” in the county, Granger said, reiterating her support for the county getting a much-needed east-west corridor, just not where it is currently proposed. There are other places along Interstate 15 where a road could be built to connect with Red Hills Parkway, she said.
The Habitat Conservation Plan and proposed northern corridor
The primary argument for the northern corridor is the need for an east-west route that will help alleviate heavy traffic coming with continuing growth in the county.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently ranked the St. George area in the top 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. The University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute estimates Washington County’s population will exceed 500,000 by 2065.
The route for the northern corridor has been a contested topic for over 20 years, Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said, addressing the City Council Tuesday night. He was there to speak in favor of the resolution and appeared somewhat frustrated over questions about changing the proposed right-of-way for the roadway.
The proposed route for the roadway is the result of many parties coming to the table and working together to find a palatable solution, Cox said, so attempting to change it now isn’t as easy as some may think.
The northern corridor has been at issue since the establishment of the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in the mid-1990s.
The reserve, which is managed under Washington County’s Habitat Conversation Plan, or HCP, functions as a place where the threatened Mohave desert tortoises are protected and can be relocated to when found outside the reserve anywhere else in the county.
Being able to remove the tortoise from other parts of the county has allowed construction and growth in the county to continue rather than be brought to a halt on the premise of federal policy regarding threatened and endangered species, both Cox and Councilman Troy Belliston said.
The original Habitat Conservation Plan had a 20-year life span that ran out two years ago. It has been allowed to continue in place while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, county and other federal agencies work to iron out issues related to its renewal
Among the issues causing a hold up in the renewal is establishing a right-of-way for a northern corridor in the county.
As the roadway would cut through the tortoise reserve, federal wildlife and lands officials haven’t been very eager to approve it and have rejected routes proposed by county road planners in the past.
Conversely, county officials believe a right-of-way for the road was promised to the county by Congress in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
However, Cox said, Stewart’s bill clearly spells out that a right-of-way for a northern corridor through the tortoise reserve will be established.
“I think this is our best shot to solve the problem,” he said.
The proposed federal legislation also expands the HCP by nearly 7,000 acres in an area west of the Bloomington and Tonaquint neighborhoods of St. George, tentatively designated as “Zone 6” (see map insert to this report). This area, which has a recently-discovered and apparently thriving population of desert tortoises, would be added to help offset the impact the northern corridor would have to existing tortoise habitat.
“We need to show support for the HCP because it’s a big deal,” Belliston said.
Granger agreed on that point, yet also said, “Our obligation is to our city first, and the county second.”
Members of the Washington County Commission are approaching the county’s municipalities to pass resolutions supporting Stewart’s bill. The St. George City Council unanimously passed its own resolution earlier this month.
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