Washington elected a new mayor for the first time in 12 years. Here is his vision for the future – St. George Daily Spectrum

As the initial batch of election results was released on the evening of Nov. 2, it became apparent Washington city would be getting a new mayor for the first time in more than a decade. 
Kress Staheli was already a familiar face around city hall and across Washington. He’s served multiple terms on the city council and was born and raised in the downtown area of the city, although now he lives south of the Virgin River. He said he thinks he’ll be the first mayor to live in that part of town when he’s officially sworn into office in January. 
Staheli, who’s owned an insurance business for the last 20 years, said he sees that distinction as a positive. Bringing different parts of the fast-growing city together was a key part of his campaign messaging, as he advocated for increased support in public safety, public services and public spaces as the city grows into new areas. 
When the finalized election results showed that Staheli had won the election by 33 percentage points over longtime Mayor Kenneth Neilson, who has been in office for the past 12 years, Staheli said he felt “humbled” by the wide margin of victory. He attributed the victory to the sentiment that Washington voters wanted some “fresh energy” from the mayor’s office. 
“The challenges that we’re gonna face over the next 12 years are going to be as exponential as our growth has been for the last 12 years,” he said. 
In 1990, Staheli was a sophomore in high school and the city had just under 4,200 residents. That grew steadily in the years since, up to some 8,000 people in 2000, to 19,000 in 2010 and to an estimated 30,000 today.
Staheli said he understands that all that growth comes with challenges, but he hopes to engage with citizens to respond to whatever problems arise. The city needs to add new housing options in a way that doesn’t outpace its infrastructure, he said, noting the need to update the city’s water plans as Utah’s historically bad drought continues. 
At the same time, Staheli said he wanted to give credit to Neilson for his work and said that the outgoing mayor was one of the first people to encourage Staheli to get involved in city government, suggesting he run for city council in 2011. Since this results became clear in this year’s election, Staheli said Neilson has been very supportive and given advice on how to get started.
Aside from the increased demand that growth is putting on infrastructure, Staheli said he also sees a unique problem that many of the new residents might not consider — a lack of name recognition.
“A lot of people, they’ll say, ‘I moved to St. George’ when they live in Washington,” he said, hinting at the big-brother status of the city’s much larger next-door neighbor. 
More:Final election results for Washington County area: Big turnout, challengers win
Staheli said he to combat this problem by improving the city’s downtown area, hoping to produce a place that’s more walkable and recognizable and separate from St. George. As more people continue to move to more dispersed areas of the city like Washington Fields and Green Springs, they’ll still feel connected to Washington City as a more distinct place, he said. 
“I just feel strongly that as we grow in these different areas of our community that our downtown has to continue to look and feel as a vibrant, inviting space,” he said.
One of Washington’s defining areas is the “Washington Fields” area on the south side of the city. Long home to pastures, alfalfa fields and various family farms, much the area has been sold and converted to residential neighborhoods.
All the new residential rooftops now share space with the remaining agricultural land — a drive through the area can involve seeing million-dollar homes on one side of the road and cows grazing in grass on the other — and Staheli said he views this evolution of Washington Fields as sad yet unavoidable.
“It’s hard for all of us to accept the fact that the Washington Fields will not always be fields,” he said. “It still is a good place for growing alfalfa and other crops. And now it’s maybe a good place for families and individuals to grow.” 
Washington Fields has become emblematic of the area’s growing pains, as Washington City, a city that’s been around for more than 160 years, transitions into its new role as part of the fast-growing St. George metropolitan area. The cities of St. George, Washington, Santa Clara and Ivins have a combined population of more than 140,000 people now, according to data from the 2020 U.S. Census.  
Many new residents come for the outdoor amenities and hot job market but don’t have agricultural aspirations. Staheli said these changes create the need to update the identity for Washington City.
“We’re building a community and finding our identity as we do it, right,” he said. “We’re growing into our identity and in this city, over the last 30 years it has changed.” 
The days of farms and cows seem limited, partly because of how much money can be made by building homes. This last year alone, home values increased by 29% in Washington County, according to a report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute.
 Still, even if the few remaining farms get converted to residential spaces, Staheli said he plans on continuing to call the area the Fields and wants to use city resources to preserve some of that agricultural heritage. The city was founded in 1857 by Mormon Pioneers from southern states who were sent down by Brigham Young to grow cotton and other crops.
If the city has been so attractive to move-ins, that should mean it can afford to be picky when it comes to what types of new development projects should be allowed, Staheli said.
“We’re not chasing growth. We want to be very, you know, intentional and conservative with our growth,” he said. 
Any new project proposal should show that it both adds value to the community and fits with the city’s general plan, he said.
More:Washington County grew by more than 30% over past decade, per new US Census release
“Washington is such a desirable place to live. Whether it be commercial or residential, come show us how you’re going to be a contributing valuable part of the community,” he said.
Some of the largest projects underway are being developed just off Interstate 15 at Exit 13, where several different commercial projects are popping up out of the desert sand. A new 120,000 square-foot hospital is set to anchor the Zion Medical Village, a 110-acre project that could host a wide range of healthcare businesses, according to Rusty Hughes, Washington’s director of economic development.
More: Construction of a new hospital in Washington set to move forward after concerns of delay
Tax revenue from these developments will stay in Washington City and not flow into the surrounding cities, something that hasn’t always been the case. Hughes said the city has largely been a “bedroom community,” with residents living in Washington but then driving across the city line to work and shop.
And Washington City, like the rest of the county, is facing a housing shortage. While the 29% increase in home prices makes affordability an issue for buyers, renters have been finding an even tougher market, with average rents up by 43% since January 2019, according to a report on Utah’s rental market from property management software company Entrata. 
Staheli said housing is a problem that can’t be solved alone by the public sector but that he does think there is a point where the city needs to step in. 
“It’s something that we can partner with the private sector and try to help and say, here are some ideas, here’s some solutions, that if we work together, we can provide more opportunities,” he said.
One proposal would be to create an inclusionary-housing zoning ordinance that would require a certain amount of new units in a residential development to be set aside at an affordable market rate, according to Staheli.
It could be a step that helps people with median income jobs in the city — such as teachers, police and firefighters — afford to stay, Staheli said.
Another proposal is to plan for a mix of housing options for residents, including both low-density neighborhoods and high-density apartment buildings, Staheli said. On the other hand, those developments should match the area they’re being placed in, he added.
“We’re certainly not looking to put in any type of high density that would not be in harmony with the surrounding uses,” he said.
More:Washington County has 10 years to find a new source of water, according to state open house event
And however the growth comes in, the city faces real challenges in making sure the infrastructure is in place to support it, especially if water supplies decline.
 “At some point, water may decide for us,” Staheli said. 
Water could decide the growth and development of both Washington City and the rest of southwestern Utah. Officials at Utah’s Division of Water Resources have said Washington County will likely need to find new sources of water by 2025 or 2030, depending on the county’s level of conservation. 
Staheli said water has been on the minds of Washington residents since the pioneers founded the town in 1857. 
“[The pioneers] settled in this particular area because of the close proximity to wells and springs,” he said. “So water was an issue then and it’s an issue now.” 
But in Washington County, water is an issue that can’t be addressed by one municipal government since most municipalities share the same water supply. The Washington County Water Conservancy District provides water to 90% of county residents, according to the district’s website.
Washington City gets about half its water supply from the conservancy district while getting the rest from natural wells around the city, according to Staheli.
The city uses conservancy district infrastructure to get water to residents, and the unique importance of water means any plans for the future need to be collaborative, Staheli said. Every city has been asked to develop landscape ordinances for water use, but the majority of the area’s usable water still goes toward watering lawns and other greenery.
“Washington City is talking to St. George, is talking to Hurricane,” Staheli said. “We’re all talking together. We’re trying to get on the same page on some of the particulars of what this ordinance might look like.”
More:Survey results: How Washington County residents feel about the Lake Powell Pipeline
The conservancy district estimates that 59% of its water goes towards residential usage and says 400 million gallons of water could be saved a month if people water their lawns one day less per week.
Staheli said he thinks the area should be looking for water conservation solutions and philosophies that have worked in other drought-stricken areas of the country and apply them to Washington County.
“We live in a desert. We need to act like it,” he said. 
Acting like it could include individual steps like updating appliances so they’re more water-efficient, or installing desert-friendly landscapes. It could also include government steps like developing a secondary water system that could take water that isn’t treated for culinary use and take it straight to residents’ irrigation systems.
It’s a complicated issue, but Staheli said he thinks that if he uses his time as mayor to collaborate and listen to stakeholders in the community on how to solve issues, his time as mayor will be productive.
“If we can get on the same page, identify our priorities, identify our challenges, and then work together to resolve them, remembering that we who we work for, and that’s the people then, I think we can be successful,” he said.
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.