On Wednesday, 1 July 2015, I attended a meeting arranged by Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon at American Fork High School. The purpose of the meeting was to inform residents about recent developments in the canyon area, focusing primarily on the Mountain Accord proposal to swap land owned by Snowbird in Salt Lake County for land owned by the Forest Service in Utah County. Snowbird for some time has wanted to expand their ski and resort operations. There were several presentations and a question-and-answer session.
The meeting opened with presentations by the Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon organization. These included a description of how the group was created, following revelations of the proposed Snowbird land swap, and a great video of the canyon area.
The land swap has been covered extensively in the Daily Herald:
Snowbird has wanted to expand into Utah County and American Fork Canyon for some time, dating back at least to 2011 (Snowbird proposes tram in American Fork Canyon).
We then heard the text of the resolution passed by American Fork.
We next heard a presentation from Sean Seager, Director, Metropolitan Planning Organization, with Mountainland Association of Governments. MAG provides regional transportation planning, meals-on-wheels, and community development block grants.
Mr. Seager gave an overview of the timeline for both Mountain Accord and American Fork Canyon Vision. AFC Vision received $100,000 in funding from the state, which was directed to MAG through UDOT, to manage the visioning project. The goal of this project is to develop a plan for how the canyon should be used over the short term, medium term, and long term (10 years), including transportation and uses. Mountain Accord is a separate process that works on idealized systems in the mountains for Salt Lake, Wasatch, and Summit Counties. Mountain Accord has been working for quite some time on its plans, whereas the AFC Vision group is relatively new.
The AFC Vision group released an RFP for a coordinator in July 2014 and then hired Logan Simpson for project planning ($80K) and Utah State University for user surveys in the canyon ($58K). Intercept surveys began this year, with an emphasis on collecting data consistent with surveys done nationally on National Forest land and with surveys collected by Mountain Accord. Realizing they were short of money, AFC Vision solicited donations and Snowbird donated $50K. Meanwhile, Mountain Accord began looking at Utah County land in February or March of this year, and the proposed land trades became public in March. The controversy started shortly thereafter, because a group without Utah County representation was proposing to allow Snowbird to expand its operations in Utah County in return for watershed protections in Salt Lake County. In the last few weeks, AFC Vision refunded its donation to Snowbird, due to pressure that they were facing from the public regarding the land swap and Snowbird's potential influence on the visioning process. This depleted its funds and work is paused until the controversy with land swaps and Mountain Accord is settled.
Commissioner Bill Lee told of his involvement in this issue, which started several weeks ago. He expressed his shock and dismay at hearing about the proposed land swap was planned to occur no input or representation from Utah County. The county held a hearing on the issue, and he had conversations with Mountain Accord regarding his concerns. Mr. Lee reported tonight that Mountain Accord passed a motion saying they will stop considering the Utah County land swap until Utah County has a chance to conduct its own study and make a recommendation. he concluded by saying that more work needs to be done and more voices need to be heard.
Questions and Answers
Mr. Lee fielded a number of questions:
Q: How important is it to have cities pass resolutions, like American Fork?
A: It would mean a great deal to see support from cities, particularly on the process.
Q: What is the scope of the process that Utah County will use, and who will be involved?
A: Not sure yet, will need to discuss this with the commissioners. Has heard lots of ideas.
Q: Did Mountain Accord request a timeline?
A: Initially they wanted 90 days, but they agreed that there would be no constraints until Utah County goes through the process.
Q: The Mountain Accord website says they will give Utah County seats at the table, and input, but allowing the process until July 21st.
A: Some press releases have said things like this, but there have been more conversations affirming the desire for more time. Mountain Accord offered money for meetings, help with a task force, applications, the governor’s office, and so forth, because they want to help. However, Mr. Lee said that because of all that has happened, he wanted Utah County to go through its process independently.
At this point, one attendee expressed a desire to have Utah County land completely out of the MA process, which was met with warm applause.
Q: Where is Snowbird with the land swap?
A: It has not been submitted to National Forest yet, because Snowbird wants to go through a process and work with groups not just do it on their own. There are federal statutes that you have to go through, and local government officials need to weigh in. If there is resistance, then it is not in your favor to go forward without consensus. Snowbird is looking for consensus.
Q: Why are there do not trespass signs by Snowbird in Mineral Basin?
A: They do own land there, and we need to be sensitive to private property rights.
Q: If Snowbird is making money off Utah County lands, can we get a share of tax revenues?
A: Yes, we can get property tax revenues. Sales tax revenue is generated at the point of sale, so this is not available. (John Dougall confirmed this later.)
Q: How can Snowbird swap land in Utah County for land in Salt Lake County?
A: The Forest Service can certainly allow this, but we should run it through a County process.
Q: How can they put in a gondola on Forest Service land?
A: They go through a permitting process with public hearings. With private land they still have to go through the county with building permits, zoning, etc. Zoning is CE-1 zone, and they have to meet those requirements.
Q: Are donations to a candidate proper? You expect that people who make major donations or receive major donations recuse themselves from the process.
A: John Dougall jumped in and said recusal depends on state law and office. But disclosure must happen.
Q: Under what authority does Mountain Accord operate? What happens if the Utah County recommendation is no swap, can they supersede that recommendation?
A: Mountain Accord has no legal authority. They just make plans and recommendations.
Q: In the land swap process, are there legal ways to halt the swap once it has been requested?
A: Yes, there are plenty.
Q: What are disclosure requirements for city officials?
A: In general, they should file in advance, many disclose at time of vote. There is some confusion in law. It is definitely required in advance of vote.
Q: Can the county rezone the area so that it does not allow any kind of development and is preserved as a wilderness?
A: Yes, this is something the county can look into.
Mayor Watkins from Alpine stated his general support of community involvement in the process and protecting the current state of American Fork Canyon.
Mayor Gygi shared his role in the AFC Vision process. At this time, there were several questions directed to Gary Gygi regarding his involvement in the process and with Snowbird. He stated that he did go to a reception using tickets provided by Snowbird and that he had done a helicopter tour upon first entering office. He was candid about liking some of what Snowbird has presented, but stated that he sets his personal concerns aside and represents the residents of our city. He defended his role in the AFC Vision process as impartial and confirmed that he first heard about the proposed land swap with everyone else when it first came to light.
This was the two hour mark for the meeting, and I had to leave due to other commitments.
It's clear that Mountain Accord has overstepped its bounds by trying to get Snowbird to swap land in Salt Lake County for land in Utah County. This would let them protect watershed in the Cottonwood Canyons area in return for decreased protections in American Fork Canyon. In addition, this would bring commercial development into a pristine wilderness area for the first time. They should not have even considered land in Utah County without involving Utah County officials and getting public input from county residents.
Moving forward, it is important that any changes to American Fork Canyon come with extensive public input from Utah County residents. My personal preference is to retain the wilderness aspect of the area and to work with local organizations to help protect the land from overuse and misuse.
It is not clear whether the AFC Vision project will continue. There is no remaining funding and significant public distrust, due to donations from Snowbird and a lack of public meetings and minutes. Commissioner Bill Lee has indicated the county will develop a process, but it is not clear what that process will look like, who will be involved, or what the scope will be.
The Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon group will certainly continue to be vocal in advocating for continued public use of the canyon and preserving its undeveloped, non-commercial character. You can visit their Facebook group for more information.