Robert Gehrke: How a town, a Romney and the Utah Legislature laid the groundwork for a land grab

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The town of Hideout is trying to annex open space on the outskirts of Park City near Richardson Flat, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

A large swath of open fields just outside of Park City has become the focal point of one of the most brazen land grabs you’re likely to ever see.

It’s a story that has it all: A senator’s son, slick lobbying, subtle tweaks to state law, a rushed and opaque public process, and the potential for sprawling development.

The town of Hideout, population 975, voted last week to proceed with plans to annex a portion of the 940-acre Richardson Flat, which has drawn interest from developers Nate Brockbank and his partner Josh Romney, the son of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney.

Robert Gehrke

The move by this Wasatch County town to reach across the county line and take control of the property stunned officials from Summit County and Park City, who had planned to set the land aside for recreation and open space and say they were not even given the courtesy of being notified about Hideout’s plans.

Summit County Manager Tom Fisher said they first caught wind of the proposal early last week and didn’t find out any details until the Town Council meeting Thursday.

Summit had previously received a request from Brockbank and Romney to change zoning to allow mixed-use development on 940 acres of the land, a plan Park City opposed out of fear of suburban sprawl lapping at the city’s edge and thought they had avoided.

Now, Hideout’s annexation push may undo all of that, opening the door to the type of development you see at Kimball Junction and giving the 12-year-old town, which survives almost exclusively on residential property tax, a commercial tax base for the first time.

And even though both Summit County, Wasatch County and Park City all expressed serious concerns about the annexation, there may not be much they can do to stop it.

That’s because a provision was slipped into a bill passed by the Legislature at the very end of the annual session that allows, under suspiciously specific circumstances, a town to annex a noncontiguous part of a neighboring county without having to get the approval of the county where the land sits.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The town of Hideout is trying to annex open space on the outskirts of Park City near Richardson Flat, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, was originally focused on Plain City’s annexation plan. It had buy-in from the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties. But on the second-to-last night of the session, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, substituted the legislation, changing, as he put it “some technical stuff.” It made it through the Senate with less than two minutes of consideration.

The Utah Association of Counties was never consulted and didn’t find out about the change until Summit County learned Hideout was using the new law for the Richardson Flat annexation.

Then, during a special session earlier this year, another bill, sponsored by Sen. David Buxton, R-Roy, permitted, again in very narrow circumstances, an annexed area to include islands and peninsulas of un-annexed land — basically carve-outs that the county “gets” to keep.

Hideout’s annexation plan has a big carveout, a large Superfund site with contaminated soil from mining that the town, as you might expect, doesn’t want. Summit County gets to keep that piece.

Gov. Gary Herbert signed that special session bill a little over two weeks ago. Last Thursday, the Hideout council voted unanimously to proceed with the annexation petition, authorizing the mayor to sign a pre-annexation agreement and starting the clock on a 30-day notification process.

The Town Council vote came with little notice. There was only a vague mention of annexation in the agenda. There was no information provided to the public prior to the meeting. The maps of the envisioned annexation — significantly expanding the current town — were not made public until the meeting, nor were they provided to Park City officials until days later.

“We are shocked that Hideout Town Council rushed to a vote last week with no discussion and without considering input from its neighboring jurisdictions,” Park City Mayor Andy Beerman told me via email. “The public has a right to know the reason for the urgency and what type of special interests are potentially driving this project.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The town of Hideout is trying to annex open space on the outskirts of Park City near Richardson Flat, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

“Of course, this is quite a land grab, from our perspective, and we’re a bit chagrined that city government wouldn’t at least give us some notice of this action,” Summit County Councilman Chris Robinson said at the meeting according to KPCW.

There are two potential roadblocks to the project becoming a reality.

Park City had previously negotiated an agreement with Talisker Development not to build on the property before the developer went bankrupt. The land is in pending foreclosure, and it could ultimately be up to a judge to decide if the agreement with the city would bind the new owners.

The second could be a repeal of the law by the Legislature. Some senators feel hoodwinked into voting for a bill with farther-reaching consequences than they were led to believe. There are discussions underway to repeal the law in a special session planned for next month — although that session won’t take place until after Hideout’s 30-day notice period is up and it can execute the annexation.

“We are looking at all of our present options that could be employed,” said Fisher, the Summit County manager, noting at the same time he is talking with Hideout to better understand what the town’s intent is.

This is not how any of this should work. Local governments and the public should have some say in if and how their communities develop, not get steamrolled by greedy neighbors operating in the dark. And we shouldn’t have a system where rich, politically connected developers play by different rules, indeed, rewrite the rules entirely to meet their ends.

It’s time for state lawmakers to send Hideout officials a clear message that they should back off, then fix their mistake when they convene in a special session next month, and restore some semblance of order and balance to this process.

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