Robert Gehrke: If Best Friends is Kane County’s worst enemy, its leaders need to get with the times

Usually county leaders are happy to see the largest employer expanding, but Kane County commissioners are anything but friends with the Best Friends Animal Society.

Over the years, Best Friends has blossomed into a 3,700-acre sanctuary for some 1,600 dogs and cats and horses and rabbits and birds and pigs and all sorts of critters. It attracts an estimated 37,000 visitors each year and provides full-time employment to 425 people.

But commissioners are scrambling to halt Best Friends’ already approved $6.3 million purchase of 2.5 square miles of School and Institutional Trust Lands — state-owned land where the proceeds are dedicated mainly to benefit Utah school kids.

In the process, the county has laid bare simmering resentment toward the nation’s largest animal rescue, the progressive causes it represents and the outsiders it draws to the rural, conservative area.

“They don’t have an appreciation for the locals and respect for our values and traditions. We are the most reliably conservative county in the state if not the nation,” Kanab City Councilwoman Celeste Meyeres told my colleague Brian Maffly last week. “The people who work there embrace Best Friends’ agenda, which is environmentalism and animal advocacy.”

Robert Gehrke

The land at issue had been the target of a proposal by a company called Southern Red Sands to mine sand that could be used in oil fracking, a plan that drew bitter opposition from some Kanab residents. But the company abandoned the project due to economic and logistics obstacles. It was probably opportune that it did before the oil market cratered.

When the sand project fizzled, Best Friends wanted to protect the dunes next to the sanctuary, so they played by the rules to acquire the land. The parcel was advertised and no other offers were submitted.

SITLA notified various government agencies, and sent letters to the County Commission, Kanab City, adjacent landowners, and anyone with a permit on the land and the county didn’t even raise any issues until two weeks after the SITLA board had met to approve the deal.

For all practical purposes, the sale is done. It was approved by the SITLA board last month. Best Friends paid the initial $630,000 down payment and has a few months until the rest of it is due, but a legally enforceable contract is in place.

SITLA director Dave Ure told Maffly the $6.3 million purchase price is well above what the appraised value of the land would have been.

But county commissioners and city council members want SITLA to revisit it, belatedly raising issues about public access to the land and water.

The most valid concern raised was over a culinary water well. But under the terms of the sale, Best Friends is obligated to honor the city’s existing lease for the well and the access road to it until 2032. If Best Friends doesn’t renew it, the city has the authority to use eminent domain and take the well for its municipal supply.

Best Friends has said it has no issue with grazing and will maintain an open road on the land. It’s uncertain if hunting will be allowed, but there is no shortage of federal land to hunt on within Kane County.

All of these objections also ignore that disruption to hunting and the threat to the water supply would have been far worse if the sand mine — which officials did not oppose — would have gone forward.

Indeed, the opposition seems to have less to do with access to land and more to do with animus toward interlopers and fear of what that change brings.

"I am excited when people come to live in Kanab. I'll give them every benefit of the doubt," Meyeres said. "It's when they clamp down on the values and liberty of others that I bristle."

Nobody’s values or liberty are under attack, except perhaps Best Friend’s private property rights.

This deal, on its face, is a good thing for Kane County and Kanab if officials could simply see past their reactionary disdain for anyone who doesn’t want to strip mine land.

And while SITLA owned the land, the county was unable to tax the property. Now that it is being transferred to private hands, it will be taxed. Property records show that last year Best Friends paid nearly $350,000 in property taxes.

An economic analysis shows Best Friends’ economic impact is even larger, with the sanctuary, a hotel and coffee shop generating $43 million in economic activity for Kane County and $8.6 million in annual tax revenues. The county’s budget for 2019 was $11.3 million.

The choice, to be clear, is not between two things — either you get a sanctuary or a sand mine. The sand mine isn’t coming and even assuming the city and county could stop the Best Friends purchase (which they probably cannot), it would be a loss for the city, the county, Best Friends, and Utah school kids.

Tourism won’t be the economic savior of rural Utah — seasonal jobs at relatively modest wages can only do so much. But clinging to the past and trying to beat back change is not an answer either. And until someone figures out how to turn liberty loving into a viable industry, Kane County would be smart to work collaboratively to benefit both the residents and the critters.