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Know the West

How an ex-clown brought order to a boom town


PARK CITY, Utah - In 1884, the editor of the town newspaper scolded that "there is too much promiscuous shooting on streets at night."

More than a century later, the common complaint is there is too much promiscuous construction each day.

This is the land of perpetual nail pounding, where subdivisions materialize overnight. They march up the hills and across the meadows and into the canyons and aspen groves.

Call it the invasion of the property snatchers - people with money attracted by the ski town of Park City and rural Summit County, all within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City.

So when former Summit County Commissioner Gene Moser declares that this also is home to "the finest growth-management plan in the Western United States," you might wonder if he has been sniffing too much linoleum glue.

The past four years have seen a construction boom in the Park City area that compares only to the days when Ontario Mine ore was running 400 ounces of silver per ton. Today, homes are running $180 per square foot.

As commissioner, Moser tried to keep Summit County ahead of the stampede of new people and new houses, spearheading a planning philosophy that won him accolades and abomination.

"I have lost a few friends in the process," he says while sitting in the kitchen of the home he and wife Laverne bought when they moved to Park City in 1977. "But it's been very rewarding. There's not a function in government that's more important than determining how landscapes are turned into buildings."

After only four years in office as county commissioner, Moser retired Dec. 31 with accomplishments many multiple-term politicians would envy. The county commission of Moser, Sheldon Richins and Ron Perry have literally taken Summit County from the primordial ooze of land-use planning to a state-of-the-art development code that is discussed in graduate-level classes at Harvard University.

The past four years have been dubbed the "Moser Revolution" by some local commentators, with the commissioner symbolizing the county's heightened awareness toward growth, environmental purity and quality of life.

Moser, a one-time rodeo clown, has been honored by the American Planning Association as citizen planner of the year. Gov. Mike Leavitt tapped him to serve on the Utah Tomorrow Committee. He's on the board of the Utah Local Government Trust and committees of the National Association of Counties.

Not a bad ascension for someone who ran a "quixotic and whimsical" campaign to win the office, the first Park City resident on the county commission in 50 years.

"There was a gentleman's agreement that there would be one commissioner from the north end of the county, one from the south end and one from the (Snyderville) Basin, pretty much how the Mormon Church stakes were arranged," says Moser. "I was the un-gentleman who broke the agreement."

Moser was elected as an independent, although his political leanings are evident from the autographed photos of Ronald Reagan and George Bush that hang in his den. Still, the former campaign advance staffer for Reagan strays toward the green side of the political spectrum when he starts discussing land use.

"Our earth and world are so fragile, and it's discouraging when people come in here and think everything will just grow back," he says. "I was up out of Henefer the other day looking at the Mormon Trail and you can still see the wagon ruts made 150 years ago."

Moser says he is not anti-growth, despite what many in Summit County's prosperous real estate development community believe. He refrains from using the phrase "controlled growth," preferring to talk about "managing for growth."

"We are going to grow, it's inevitable, but we can affect how we look," he says. "New growth can be made to pay its own way."

Translated, that philosophy means impact fees, which are charges assessed on new residential and commercial building permits to help pay for schools, roads and other amenities of civilized rural life. Summit County passed the state's first school impact fee in 1994 and is poised to pass an impact fee to pay for road improvements outlined in a 20-year master plan. But the Utah Legislature, feeling the heat from angry builders and developers who contend the impact fees unfairly drive up the price of a new home, are similarly poised to outlaw impact fees.

"Every state in the nation has impact fees except in Utah," says Moser, whose career as an insurance executive forced him to live in just about every state in the nation before settling in the West. "Impact fees are not for everyone, granted. But these guys bitch when the federal government tells them they can't run things the way they want and now they're doing the same thing to local governments."

Summit County's development code and general land-use plan for the Snyderville Basin have also drawn the wrath of developers. They view its restrictions and "tiering" provisions that delay and dictate construction as an infringement on private property rights. The plan is currently being challenged in court as unconstitutional.

"It's being attacked, but I believe we will win," says Moser, noting the county hired some of the best legal experts on planning and zoning in the country to help draft the ordinance. "Even if we lose that battle, we still have the design principles that everyone agrees with. We must have concurrency before approving new construction.

"We're not going to allow new development if there's not the water, roads, schools, sewer, open space and other necessities in place to support the new development," he says. "Some of these people really holler property rights until somebody next to them wants to build something they don't like."

But after former county commissioners swept the election in January, many in Summit County wondered if the Moser Revolution was a blip on the screen, a swing in public sentiment typical of Park City's boom-and-bust heritage. New commissioners Jim Soter and Tom Flinders have said they want to "fine tune" the land-use ordinance. Both men received substantial campaign contributions from real estate developers and ran strongest in the areas of the county outside Park City and the Snyderville Basin. Their opponents, who were staunch advocates of continued growth management, won most precincts in the Park City area.

"There were anti-Park City campaign advertisements right before the election targeted at the rest of the county, which I thought was humorous since I fought more with Park City than anybody," says Moser, who did not seek re-election. "But these new commissioners have pledged and promised that they will support the plan we put in place. I'm trusting them to uphold that promise."

There is reason to wonder about the promise; new commissioners Soter and Flinders axed county planner Bruce Parker, architect of the county's plan, soon after taking office.

Moser, perhaps more than the pointy-toed legislators clopping through the marble halls of the state capitol, ought to belong to the "Cowboy Caucus." As a cowhand in the New Mexico desert, he worked cattle line camps where he would go as long as three months without seeing another person. He met his wife at a rodeo dance and in the late 1940s and early 1950s was well-known as a rodeo clown, playing the top roundups in places like Greeley, Colo., and Albuquerque, N.M.

After being hooked 21 times by bulls during one rodeo, he figured it was time to hang up the rubber nose and floppy shoes. With three children to support, he switched from a vocation of "burlesque bull fighting" to selling insurance for Mutual of Omaha.

"My life has been in three very separate, different segments of rural, corporate and political," he says. "I'm ready for another change, more of a citizen activist and consultant on the politics of planning. Many times in office I've had to bite my tongue on some issues, but no more. You'll be hearing from me."

The reporter works for the Salt Lake Tribune.