The four candidates running to be on the city council for Cedar City gathered Tuesday night at Southern Utah University to discuss the issues impacting the city including overdrawn aquifer, housing for city residents and students and how to attract larger businesses.
This debate only lasted an hour and it was originally planned that the mayoral candidates would debate each other immediately after the city council debate ended. But their debate was delayed since the current mayor, Maile Wilson-Edwards, announced on Oct. 16 on Facebook she and her family had tested positive for COVID-19.
The city council debate was hosted by the Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Services at Southern Utah University. There were a few tense moments between the candidates during the debate, but overall they mostly agreed on how to respond to issues facing Iron County’s largest city.
Election Q&A: Meet the candidates for the Cedar City council
Derek Morton, who runs a property management company, said he is running to deal with three main crises facing Cedar City, which he says are “water, attainable housing and increased poverty” levels. He says the city’s lack of planning has made all of those issues worse.
R. Scott Phillips is the only incumbent council member in the race and has been on the city council for the last four years after retiring from his position as the executive director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Phillips says he is running again to “give back” to the Cedar City community.
Carter Wilkey is a local real estate agent who wants to be on the city council to serve the community and touted that he went to over 100 city council meetings since 2018 to understand how the meetings work and how the council accomplishes its goals.
Ron Riddle is the owner of a cabinet-making business and said he worked with a referendum group and when talking to people he felt like residents of Cedar City weren’t “getting the voice that they needed.” So he decided to throw his hat in the race to try and bring the voice of residents to the city council.
All the candidates agreed water is a major issue for Cedar City and that the city will likely need to expand its water resources in order to maintain its growth. One population projection from the University of Utah suggests Iron County is expected to grow by 81% over the next few decades. In the past 10 years alone, Cedar City’s population has expanded by 22%, according to the U.S. Census.
One of the cities main water resources is the Cedar Valley Aquifer, which has been chronically overdrawn by thousands of acre-feet and there are concerns it will run out. All the candidates said they would like to see programs to replenish the water in the aquifer.
Riddle mentioned his support for the Iron County Water Conservancy District’s Pine Valley water supply project.
“We need to look for other resources for water,” said Riddle.
This Pine Valley project is a proposed 66-mile water pipeline that will take water from Pine Valley and deliver it to the Cedar Valley and residents of central Iron County, according to the Iron County Water Conservancy District’s website. It’s estimated this pipeline will bring 15,000 acre-feet of water to Iron County per year.
Morton said he wants the city to invest in technology to figure out exactly how much water is left in the aquifer and then plan accordingly based on the remaining water levels.
Phillips echoed that the uncertainty over just how low the aquifer is creates problems in how to respond to the drought conditions present in Cedar City. He advocated the city do everything it can to increase its water supply, including conservation efforts, recharging the aquifer and acquiring new water resources, saying water is the most important issue for Cedar City.
“Water is the issue, it will decide growth and the rate of growth,” Phillips said.
All the candidates agreed water is a vital issue being discussed and were all for voluntary and incentivized water conservation efforts.
Wilkey suggested adding an increased fee for any resident who is using above the average water usage rate in a similar fashion to the water surcharge recently proposed by the Washington County Water Conservancy District. But he and the rest of the candidates said the city should encourage and incentivize water conservation but not mandate it.
Phillips was also against mandates and said that water conservation and quality of life issues need to be balanced for citizens.
“I think our communities and places where we want to live … do include shade trees, do include lawns,” said Phillips.
Housing costs in Cedar City have gone up rapidly. One University of Utah report shows Iron County’s median home sale prices have jumped 30.6% over the last year. This paired with the SUU housing shortage earlier this year has made housing a central issue in this race, with Phillips saying this topic comes up at almost any event.
Phillips said he believes that if there is smart planning the city can maintain a manageable growth rate of 4% to 5%. But he acknowledges that the growth of a city’s population isn’t controlled by the city government and he blamed one thing for current housing prices.
“The free market is what drives the housing crisis,” said Phillips.
Phillips says the city can only do so much but that it should focus on creating zoning regulations to allow for higher densities and smaller living units.
Wilkey says the city should provide ways for everyone to have housing and agrees with Phillips that the free market created the current housing situation. He said the city has limited power over the construction costs of homes and should look at ways to reduce those costs. Wilkey thinks individuals and the private sector can find “holes” in the market to make it easier for people to afford housing.
Developers need to be encouraged to use zoning designations that allow for higher density units, according to Riddle.
“What people or builders or developers can afford to do, and can afford to run their businesses,” Riddle said. “Sometimes we just have to wait and see what the market will dictate.”
Morton pushed back against the assertion the city is at the whims of the free market.
“To say it’s just the market is weak,” Morton said.
He mentioned that buying and converting hotels into long-term residential units is a way to increase the city’s housing supply but that current zoning rules prevent this from being done. He also mentioned that as a property manager that landlords in the city are making too much money.
After Morton made this point, Riddle responded by saying that developers will only construct housing in the area if it’s profitable for them.
All the candidates have said it’s primarily SUU’s responsibility to find housing for its students but acknowledged the city can help create more student housing.
Many candidates including Riddle, Phillips and Wilkey mentioned the creation of the student housing district — created in 2018 which allows for less parking and higher buildings for student housing — as a positive tool for students.
Wilkey said the city needs to find ways for students to live farther away from the downtown SUU campus, which requires greater public transportation and more commercial centers away from the downtown area. So that students won’t need to live close to campus to attend SUU.
Phillips also supported the student housing district, even though he was the lone no-vote on the Cedar City council against creating this zoning district in 2018. Although he did say he’s also hesitant about approving student housing districts next to historic neighborhoods in Cedar City and wants to look at creating student housing away from the university.
“Because those neighborhoods and many of those homes are the people that helped build this university in the first place,” said Phillips.
Related: Cedar Council approves controversial SUU student housing district zone
Morton was critical of SUU in its housing plan or lack thereof.
“SUU continues to set its students and the city up for failure, since they don’t have a plan,” said Morton.
Morton mentioned that when the SUU housing coordinator resigned there wasn’t a replacement for almost a year and that SUU wanted to grow during the pandemic through online school without realizing how much housing inventory there was for students. But he says that he would approve a plan from SUU for its growth.
One question asked was from someone watching the debate through Facebook live who wanted to know how to keep residents from going to St. George to shop at larger chain stores.
Morton said the city needs to “invest in itself” to make it more accommodating for larger businesses to choose Cedar City to open a store. He mentioned the city should focus on improving the north side of the city to attract commercial projects and businesses.
However, Morton and the other candidates acknowledged that one big consideration with businesses choosing locations is population numbers and that Cedar City’s population isn’t quite high enough to get large business investments. The census showed Cedar City has 35,235 full-time residents.
Mom and Pop stores are the strength of Cedar City’s retail economy, according to Phillips. Who says the city should balance supporting those local stores while trying to attract larger ones which the city is close to doing.
“We’re kind of on the cusp of that right now with our population and our growth,” said Phillips.“ We have to continue to nurture that and see if we get some of those companies to come here and locate.”
Wilkey says small businesses built the backbone of Cedar City and said that relationships need to be built between the city council and businesses in order to offer citizens a good blend of commercial options.
Riddle says it’s a difficult situation to attract large businesses due to the local sentiment wanting the growth of the city to slow and due to population being a key factor to large businesses that look at when opening a new store. But he says that small businesses can find their “niches” to meet the commercial demands of Cedar City residents.
Sean Hemmersmeier covers local government, growth and development in Southwestern Utah. Follow on Twitter @seanhemmers34. Our work depends on subscribers so if you want more coverage on these issues you can subscribe here: http://www.thespectrum.com/subscribe.
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