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Grand County balks at joining eastern Utah clout-building coalition

First Published      Last Updated Oct 15 2014 01:45 pm

Several eastern Utah counties are forming the state's newest, and possibly largest, political subdivision.

The so-called "Seven County Infrastructure Coalition" is meant to pool members' clout and resources to develop regional projects.

The first is a proposed $3 billion, 100-mile rail spur up and over and through the mountains of eastern Utah to move crude oil out of the Uinta Basin.

But the coalition is leaving the station without Grand County, the prospective member most reliant on tourism and outdoor recreation.

While membership has the support of key county leaders, many in Moab view the coalition as a vehicle whose primary purpose is promoting yet more oil and gas development.

"The coalition has the capacity to adversely affect its own members," said Chris Baird, executive director of the Greater Canyonlands Watershed Council. "It's a very vague contract."

Baird says the new coalition was initiated by the Uinta Basin counties and stems from a Utah Department of Transportation study which recently concluded oil and gas production is overwhelming existing infrastructure. Most of the state's projected growth is in oil shale and tar sands which are spread throughout eastern Utah, including Grand County.

Representatives from the seven counties privately forged an interlocal agreement in recent months, defining the goals of the coalition and obligations of its members.

"The coalition, through the broad participation of the members and the communities can enjoy increased capability to secure governmental, foundation and other financial support for projects, and other activities benefitting the region," the agreement states.

Philosophical split • While the proposed association generated little controversy in most participating counties, Moab residents began asking tough questions when the deal became public in July.

Who will own, operate and maintain completed projects? How will costs be apportioned between the counties? Who's on the hook when things go wrong? Will Grand County be able to veto projects that aren't in its best interest? Why the lack of transparency?

County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald weighed in, questioning whether it's a good idea for Grand to give up some of its authority and yoke its future to counties with far different visions for economic development.

"Grand County citizens highly value the natural landscapes of Grand County not only for the scenic values but also for the tourist dollars that fuel the local economy," Fitzgerald wrote in a formal legal opinion. "Council members should be cognizant of the vast and biologically diverse ecosystem that makes up the Bookcliff region, which is arguably on par with Yellowstone National Park."

He noted that Grand County would have a better chance of tapping funding streams as a coalition member, as well as reaping financial rewards stemming from coalition projects.

Council chairman Lynn Jackson said Grand County, which is dominated by federal land ownership, has very little authority to lose. Entities wishing to run utility corridors or roads across the county would most likely deal with the Bureau of Land Management and the state and not even have to consult the county.

"The practical thing to do is to join and be at the table and have some influence over where they're going," he said. "These six counties aren't waiting at our boundaries with their bulldozers waiting to devastate our county."

The intercounty agreement gives members veto authority over projects entirely within their borders, although not over those that cross more than one county.

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