Campaign donations from Olympia Hills developers to Salt Lake County officials raise eyebrows

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mayors from Herriman, Riverton and Bluffdale recently met with the Salt Lake County City Council to express their opposition to Olympia Hills, a high-density development proposed outside of Herriman.

Developers behind a controversial project near Herriman have donated generously over the years to elected leaders in Salt Lake County.

Campaign disclosures reaching back to 2006 indicate that a total of nearly $38,295 in cash has flowed to campaign accounts of seven of the nine current members of the County Council from Olympia Hills backers Doug Young and John Gust, their companies, employees and close relatives.

Young, Gust and family members also gave another $41,500 to support County Mayor Jenny Wilson — before she became mayor — in her unsuccessful 2018 run for U.S. Senate against Mitt Romney, according to federal elections reports.

Those same developers are now seeking final council approval for a series of zoning changes that would allow Olympia Hills to proceed over the objections of opponents of the high-density 933-acre development, many of them residents and city leaders of nearby Herriman, Riverton, Bluffdale and adjoining cities.

The council’s first potential vote on the issue is scheduled at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Under county protocol, approval requires two separate votes from the nine-member council.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Council members hear from Salt Lake County residents regarding the proposed 933 acre Olympia Hills, high-density development proposed just west of Herriman.

A few opponents have taken to social media citing the publicly disclosed campaign cash as a hidden explanation for how some county officials may vote. Of particular worry, some opponents of Olympia Hills say, is the nearly $26,100 given to Wilson and council members since early 2018 when the project first came onto the county’s radar.

One of their leaders refuses to directly tie the cash to votes.

“I will make no accusations because there's just not proof of that,” said Justin Swain, Herriman resident and organizer with a group called Utah for Responsible Growth.

“That being said, when you're someone that's extremely affected by a decision that a political representative is making, it's a red flag,” Swain continued. “Again, without making accusations, it's really hard from a residents’ perspective to look at that and say, ‘How do I feel confident in this decision?’ “

In interviews, Wilson and several council members said the contributions in no way sway their handling of Olympia Hills and instead reflected support for their long-held policy views.

“If the implication is that donations have somehow influenced my decisions on Olympia Hills in any way, I outright reject that,” said Wilson, who does not have a vote in approving the project but has directed the county’s planning staff in reviewing Olympia Hills. She has also previously said it “will be approved.”

She and two other county leaders linked donations from Gust — a longtime developer who has backed Utah political candidates for decades — to their personal relationships with him and members of his family.

The developers, for their part, say the money they’ve donated came with no strings attached — and that the county’s tough scrutiny of their project has cost them millions of dollars.

If the council endorses Olympia Hills as a master-planned community, the development could bring as many as 6,330 new single-family homes, town homes and multistory apartments as well as 1.8 million square feet of office and retail spaces to that southwest tip of unincorporated Salt Lake County in the Oquirrh foothills.

(Photo courtesy of Doug Young / Olympia Hills) Map showing land usage in the new version of Olympia Hills, a 931-acre, high-density development proposed west of Herriman in southwest Salt Lake County. Densities in new plans for the development are now at seven housing units per acre, down from estimates ranging from nine to 37 per acre in earlier versions.

A prior version of Olympia Hills — one that had more homes but a less detailed analysis from county planners — drew County Council approval by a 8-to-1 vote in mid-2018, only to be vetoed by Wilson’s predecessor, then-County Mayor Ben McAdams, in the face of public outcry, including complaints about his campaign contributions.

And while the county has issued a rigorous set of rules this time around for how the project would be built, thousands of residents and city leaders from surrounding cities continue to fight the plan over its potential impacts on traffic, schools and water rates.

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, who with other mayors in the southwest Salt Lake Valley is urging that Olympia Hills be rejected, said he respects the rights of individual to contribute to candidates, “but some campaign contributions are not created equal.”

“When it comes to large-dollar contributions from developers and donors, I think it’s a little bit harder to make that connection in terms of political free speech,” Staggs said. “Oftentimes, there is at least an implied sense of, 'I’m going to donate in exchange for you listening.’ “

One top recipient of Gust’s donations on the council, Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, said that although she’d accepted his financial support in the past, when she first learned about Olympia Hills in early 2018, “I made it a point to not take money from John or Doug.”

“I would like to say that whether they gave me money or not wouldn't influence my vote,” Winder Newton told The Tribune. “But I don’t want even the appearance of any sort of impropriety or anything like that.”

Winder Newton received a total of $6,000 between mid-2014 and late 2017 — prior to her self-imposed ban — from two of Gust’s companies, Arbor Park Associates and Anthem Center LLC, campaign disclosures show.

In May 2018, after she stopped accepting their cash, Winder Newton said Young, head of Doug Young Land & Livestock, offered her a $4,000 check which she turned down.

The same policy, she said, has applied to her current campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

“I wanted to make sure I didn't have anything to worry about, that I could feel like I could really vote my conscience and I didn't have anything hanging over me,” she said.

But two checks slipped through, she noted. Cory Shupe, now a partner to Young and Gust in Olympia Hills, gave her $500 before she knew he was affiliated with the project, Winder Newton said. And Gust’s wife Geraldine came to one of her late-2018 fundraisers with a $500 check.

“It’s funny because at the time I thought, 'Uh, do I take this?’ “ Winder Newton recalled. “And I thought, ‘You know what? It’s directly from Geraldine.’ "

Gust and his spouse also gave a total of $8,800 to Wilson’s bid against Romney for U.S. Senate, while Young, his wife, son and daughter-in-law donated nearly $32,700 between them to the same campaign, according to federal campaign disclosures.

“I just wanted to see her win‚” Young said. “I believe she’s just a really good candidate and a really good individual. And I support a lot of candidates and a lot of good government. I know it takes money in most situations to make the best candidate visible.”

Gust said he’s known Wilson, daughter of former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, since she was six years old.

“I’ve contributed to every campaign that she’s ever decided that she wanted to run for," Gust said. "And, you know, I’ll continue to donate. She’s a fabulous leader and an honest woman.”

Wilson, a Democrat, noted that she was the underdog in running against Romney, a Republican with national visibility as a two-time U.S. presidential candidate. The mayor said she “worked very, very hard to raise almost a million dollars” in that race and was proud of drawing from a wide base of donors.

“The reality is we live, as elected officials, in a world where we have to ask for money,” Wilson said. “But I reject an association between raising money and influence because it does not exist.”

Wilson, appointed to replace McAdams in January 2019 after he won a seat in Congress, said that after McAdams vetoed Olympia Hills, the county has done a far more rigorous job in vetting the project and effects on surrounding communities.

“We’ve done better this time. We have listened. We’ve engaged,” Wilson said. “But that work has been done, not with me sitting in a conference room with the developers on a regular basis. It’s been done by staff under the direction of the council.”

Ryan Perry, a former aide to Wilson who is now the county’s director of regional planning and transportation, said Wilson did not direct the outcome of the analysis by county planners.

“We’ve been careful as a staff that we’re not promoting the project," he said.

County officials also obliged the developers to pay for two outside consulting firms to analyze aspects of Olympia Hills, he said. As a result, Perry said, the county’s pending agreements now include “unprecedented” requirements that they pay a share of the costs of road upgrades and other impacts outside the boundaries of Olympia Hills.

Young estimated those initial studies and other county requirements so far have added between $1.5 million and $2 million in pre-construction costs for Olympia Hills. Still, he praised the process.

“It’s going to be the most spectacular community this state has ever seen,” Young said.

Of the nearly $38,295 given to council members by Gust and Young, $21,845 has gone to Councilman Michael Jensen, who’s district includes the dry farmland where Olympia Hills would be built and other undeveloped west bench acreage further north.

Most of that money came in bursts early in Jensen’s 20-year stint on the County Council and between 2014 and 2015.

Some $8,000 of his largesse from the two developers has come since their project has been before council leaders — $5,000 from a family trust belonging to Geraldine Gust, disclosures show, and $3,000 from Young.

Jensen said he’s long maintained a “pro-development, pro-economic growth” stance and voting record on county land use issues.

“If you add up all of my campaign contributions, they are from people who believe in the same principles that I do and have the same visions for the county,” Jensen said.

The councilman said he grew up in Gust’s hometown of Magna and, like Wilson, has “known John for a long, long time." Jensen said Olympia Hills represented a good model for avoiding sprawl. That principle, he said — and not campaign donations — would inform his vote.

“We’re running out of land and you’ve got to be smart with that,” he said. “I don’t want it to be just hodgepodge.”

Council chairman Max Burdick has received $5,500 from Gust and related companies, campaign disclosures indicate — all of it prior to March 2017. And three council members — Arlyn Bradshaw, Jim Bradley and Richard Snelgrove — each received checks from Gust totaling $1,000 or less well between 2006 and 2012 — well before Olympia Hills was an issue.

Bradley, a longtime member of the council now over an at-large district, said he too, had known Gust for years, but that campaign donations have nothing to do with his likely support of Olympia Hills.

“The question is, do we want more ticky-tacky subdivisions out there ending up with the same amount of people or do you want to have a planned community?” said Bradley.

Councilwoman Ann Granato drew a $1,000 donation from Arbor Park Associates in November 2018, records show. Granato did not respond to requests for comment.

Shireen Ghorbani, a relative newcomer to the council, and Steve DeBry, who’s district includes swathes of several cities near Olympia Hills, have never received donations from Gust, records indicate.

DeBry was the council’s lone no vote on Olympia Hills the first time and said he remains opposed.

“I am not beholden to anybody,” said DeBry, who reported receiving more than 2,000 emails, texts and phone messages in connection with Olympia Hills in recent weeks. “Their voice is loud and clear. They don’t want it.”