Back in the 1870s, Scottish immigrants William and Catherine Brighton claimed about 100 acres near the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon and began to build a community.
At the time, Utah history books say, the spot was a way station for miners traveling between Park City and Alta.
At its peak, the area — which became known as Brighton — was host to a hotel, post office, sawmill, bakery, dairy service and the Brighton store.
“It was not incorporated, but it functioned like a town,” area resident Bob Cameron says. “It even had a bowling alley and an ice skating rink.”
These days, Brighton remains unincorporated, but Cameron and others have dreams of something bigger: A town where local residents, not state or county leaders, can decide how the lush alpine community prospers.
“They have all these boards and commissions and they keep appointing valley people to make decisions about the canyon,” Cameron says. “We think we should have a say.”
Last summer, Cameron and four other residents formed Friends of Big Cottonwood Canyon and launched a petition aimed at securing a state feasibility study to determine whether a town would be financially sound over a period of five years.
The petition, which required signatures from 20 percent of Brighton-area registered voters and 20 percent of land valuations was submitted Sept. 26 to the Utah lieutenant governor’s office.
The office is now securing a firm to conduct the study in early 2018, Justin Lee, state elections director, said. If the feasibility review supports incorporation, the issue would be up for a vote by residents and could be on the ballot next June, he says.
As proposed by the Friends group, the town would take up a small, 3.5 square-mile slice out of the 50 square-mile canyon.
For Brighton residents, the desire for self-determination is tied to three main issues — toilets, traffic and trails.
With about 1.7 million annual visitors, the well-loved canyon is riddled with traffic and parking issues. It also has a human waste problem due to the seasonal closure of public restrooms near trails that need improved maintenance and services for visitor safety and comfort, residents say. But getting adequate support and tax dollars from Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County or the state to address the issues has been a struggle, says Carolyn Keigley, a resident and one of the Friends founders.
Incorporation would give residents a greater say in solving those problems and, more importantly, greater control over how their tax dollars are spent, she believes.
“We have such a high rate of taxes up here and we’re not seeing anything from it,” Keigley says.
Over the past seven years, she adds, residents have made repeated attempts to get information about the amount of sales tax collected from the canyon’s two ski resorts by Salt Lake County, but have never gotten a reply.
Those numbers will be available as part of the feasibility study, she says.
Through a spokeswoman, Salt Lake County said it was too early in the process to say how incorporation might impact the county.
Brighton and Solitude ski resorts both asked the state to exclude their respective properties from the proposed town, letters obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show.
The requests were denied in Nov. 22 letters from the lieutenant governor’s office, which say excluding each resort would “leave an unincorporated island within the proposed town.” That’s not allowed under state incorporation law.
Solitude General Manager Kim Mayhew said she appreciates the desire of residents to have a greater say in canyon life.
The resort sought an exclusion, she said, because it is happy with “the current arrangement with Salt Lake County,” which sees many of the needed canyon services paid for by tax dollars.
Covering those considerable expenses to maintain the same level of services might be tough for a tiny new town, Mayhew said, and raises questions about future tax rates. The feasibility study will enumerate those costs and tax revenue in detail to provide some answers and wrap “some perspective and some real facts,” around the incorporation issue, she said.
Brighton’s General Manager Randy Doyle did not return a call from the Tribune on Friday.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the proposed incorporation. The environmental watchdog group Save Our Canyons has campaigned against the proposal in both a fundraising email and a newsletter to its members, calling the effort a “plot” to gain control of Big Cottonwood Canyon for development and an end run around county ordinances that protect the environment.
Those opinions are based on statements during a public meeting by Cameron that suggested the town would dilute existing land-use regulations and concern that incorporation would harm the canyon watershed, Save Our Canyons policy director Rob DeBirk says.
The canyon, DeBirk contends, is a regional resource and decisions about its use are best kept in the hands of elected officials representing a broader constituency.
“This is different than any other incorporation because our watershed is at stake,” DeBirk says. “This is the place we all recreate … and we’ve been concerned from early on that this is all going to come to down to 200 registered voters.”
Keigley scoffs at the suggestion that anyone from Friends holds property they long to develop or would act to destroy Brighton’s natural resources. Residents, she says, live there because they appreciate the canyon’s beauty and want to preserve it.
Even if development were part of the conversation, she says, it would be something nearly impossible to do. The proposed town is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land and incorporation would not grant Brighton any zoning authority in that area. Also, local water rights are controlled by Salt Lake City.
“We’re not going to have any jurisdiction,” she says. “So we wouldn’t get a big mall on the summit.”