Draper halts a new hillside subdivision while it probes allegations of undue influence by the developer

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A view of Traverse Ridge Road and SunCrest Drive in Draper on Wednesday. A proposed hillside development called Mountain Ridge Estates on Traverse Ridge has been put on hold, pending an investigation into allegations of undue influence of two Draper City Council members by the developer, Shaun Michel.

Elected leaders in Draper have delayed a controversial housing development proposed for Traverse Ridge while they look into allegations against two City Council members of undue influence by the developer.

Mayor Troy Walker said Wednesday the city would hire an outside attorney to probe accusations that council members Alan Summerhays and Michele Weeks may have been swayed by favors from Shaun Michel of Sandy-based Michel Land.

Michel and his company have been seeking city approval for Mountain Ridge Estates, a proposal to build 106 single-family homes on about 83 hillside acres they own at about 2100 East Lake Bluff Drive, near the existing Suncrest subdivision on Draper’s southern end.

The project is opposed by some Suncrest residents, who fear it could make their homes vulnerable to landslides. After being rejected at a previous meeting, modified plans for Mountain Ridge Estates were to come before the City Council on Tuesday evening for review and possible approval.

Instead, after a presentation from the developer, the meeting devolved into angry claims and counterclaims, leading Walker to call for a halt to the project until what he called “rumors and innuendo” surrounding contacts between Weeks, Summerhays and Michel could be explored. On a motion from Councilman Mike Green, the council then voted unanimously to hire an independent counsel to investigate the matter.

“I’m not accusing anybody of anything,” Walker said Wednesday. “I’m saying, ‘Let’s lay it out there so that if this does get approved, people know what kind of influence, if any, there has been.’”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Draper Mayor Troy Walker, as seen in August 2018.

The mayor said Mountain Ridge Estates had been the focus of an intense campaign for approval by the developer since it was proposed more than a year ago.

“In my time in public office,” Walker said, “I’ve never seen lobbying like this before.”

Michel, the developer, denied any wrongdoing and said his project had been unfairly caught up in deep personal animosities between the mayor and council members, particularly Weeks, who ran against Walker in Draper’s most recent mayoral race.

“There’s nothing we’ve done that’s been inappropriate,” Michel told The Salt Lake Tribune. “That is a very dysfunctional, caustic and angry council. … It’s ugly. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Michel said he welcomed the investigation and vowed to cooperate with the independent counsel, including opening his financial books for examination.

Weeks, a first-term councilwoman elected in 2015, also said she had done nothing wrong and accused Walker and Green of being driven by a long-standing vendetta against her.

“This is a personal thing," Weeks told The Tribune. “ I have nothing to hide.”

(Tribune file photo) Draper City Councilwoman Michele Weeks.

She noted the city had hired another independent counsel about a year ago to investigate a dispute over some of her personal emails, “and they found nothing.”

Summerhays did not respond to a request for comment. Council members Green, Tasha Lowery and Marsha Vawdrey referred Tribune inquiries to Walker.

City records show Summerhays and Weeks were the lone votes on the Draper City Council in favor of Mountain Ridge Estates when the council narrowly defeated it in August.

Summerhays, a Draper businessman and council member since 2005, confirmed in a Feb. 12 letter to Walker and the council that his adult son Camryn, who suffered spinal cord damage in a December car accident, was receiving physical therapy at Neuroworx, a rehabilitation clinic in Sandy. Michel is listed as a member of the clinic’s board of directors.

According to Summerhays’ letter, obtained by The Tribune, he had previously recused himself from voting on Mountain Ridge Estates over those ties, only to reverse himself a week later, saying he had handled the matter improperly and, upon reflection, no longer thought the connection to Neuroworx posed a conflict.

“I am very sorry for the confusion and any problems that I have created by my actions,” Summerhays wrote in the letter.

Michel said he referred Summerhays to the clinic only “in case he [the son] could receive some therapy he wasn’t getting.”

“There was no money offered. There was no payment. There was no benefit to me,” said Michel, who added that he had written a letter to Draper City Hall clarifying the matter.

The mayor said Wednesday at least one council member had shared a separate email from a board member at Neuroworx, reportedly promising a $1 million donation to the clinic if the subdivision was approved — an assertion that Michel also denied knowing about.

Walker said Weeks is alleged to have received funding from Michel for a teacher-appreciation charity she operates.

Weeks countered that she does run a yearly charitable event, celebrating teachers with a party at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, but “I don’t have a 501(c)(3) and I didn’t receive any donations [from Michel] that I know of.”

The mayor said there are also assertions that one of Weeks’ sons was planning a trip to Thailand with a Salt Lake City youth group reportedly tied to Michel, called Youthlinc.

Weeks confirmed her son was involved in the program but said he was paying his own way.

Michel acknowledged reaching out to Weeks’ family after the recent death of her husband, recommending her son for the Youthlinc program and taking another of Weeks’ sons on a fishing trip at one point. He said his family’s philanthropic arm, the Michel Family Foundation, had made donations to Youthlinc to assist with its humanitarian projects overseas, unrelated to Weeks’ involvement.

Walker, who is also a former assistant Salt Lake County district attorney, said that as allegations of conflicts surrounding Mountain Ridge Estates and the council began to surface, he confronted members 10 days ago with an email demanding to know all their links to Michel. Summerhays and Weeks, he said, did not respond.

Weeks said when she saw Walker’s email, “I figured it was a witch hunt,” so she worked with City Manager David Dobbins as a neutral party, reviewed relevant Utah law and concluded all was aboveboard.

“So I didn’t reply,” Weeks said, adding that she now views emails from Walker “as setting a trap.”

Walker acknowledged that he and Weeks do not get along but said the city’s probe was not driven by animosity for her but instead by an urge to be transparent with Draper residents.

“We don’t do this on everything that comes before us,” the mayor said of the independent counsel, “but this is pretty bizarre.”