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Robert Gehrke: Utah County needs to preserve Bridal Veil Falls — voters aren’t helping

County commission weights drug and alcohol treatment center at top

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bridal Veil Falls, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

With the possible exception of Timpanogos Cave, there is probably nowhere in Utah County as revered, recognized and publicly important as Bridal Veil Falls.

So it’s hard to fathom why the County Commission would facilitate plans to build a drug and alcohol treatment center at the top of such an iconic location.

But for months one commissioner, Bill Lee, has been working behind the scenes with Richard Losee, owner of the for-profit addiction treatment center Cirque Lodge, to do just that.

Cirque’s past clients include celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Mary-Kate Olsen, Eva Mendes and Demi Moore. This new center supposedly would be even ritzier and more exclusive.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

In exchange for the right to build the treatment center on property now owned by the county, Losee would build a tram to the top that would be open to the public part of the year.

I’m not disparaging the importance of treatment centers, and build them as swanky as you want, where you want — except for those cherished public places.

There has been, so far, almost no public support for selling off one of the county’s jewels.

Outgoing Commissioner Nathan Ivie has made an effort to block the center by applying a conservation easement to the land in question — effectively preventing the planned treatment center from being built and keeping the public land in public hands.

The Provo City Council on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution supporting the easement, an effort, according to council members, to reflect the overwhelming public opposition they were hearing.

Utah County Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge said he has received more emails on this issue than any he has worked on before, and none of them is in favor of the idea.

That includes a drawing from one 7-year-old on green construction paper who captured it well: “I like going there with my family and friends. Treatment centers are important, but I think waterfalls are more important.”

Given a full public airing and a somewhat responsive county government, this notion would never get out of the starting gate.

It may turn out, though, that none of that public opposition matters, because Losee already has Lee advancing the project, and next month the county swears in a new commissioner, Tom Sakievich.

Sakievich told my colleague Leia Larsen that he won’t share his views on the Bridal Veil Falls development scheme until he is sworn in.

It’s worth noting that Losee was the second-largest donor to Sakievich’s campaign.

But let’s set aside the question of whether the campaign contributions have helped to sway the incoming commissioner. Let’s just assume that they have not.

What we really have here is Exhibit A as to why Utah County voters made a major mistake last month when they voted against replacing the relic of a three-member commission with a five-member county council with a county mayor.

The vote wasn’t close. The proposed change was rejected 61% to 39%, and I suppose Utah County residents can decide for themselves if they want a government that is really, really small or one that functions.

But this is what they get. They get two commissioners who can make the final decision on any issue — not just the Bridal Veil Falls development — for an entire county that is home to more than 670,000 people and growing fast.

There is not another legislative body in the state where so few officials are supposed to represent so many constituents (save, arguably, the three Salt Lake County at-large seats).

That makes the commission vulnerable to being caught up in the whims of any hair-brained plan that comes along.

Imagine if the proponents of the pie-in-the-sky proposal to build a literal city of as many as 500,000 people on a man-made island in Utah Lake decide they want some taxpayer support, all they need is the backing of two people and nothing else matters.

Leaving every decision in a jurisdiction the size of Utah County to who can convince, cajole or coerce two people is efficient, no doubt. Having one person in charge would be even more efficient.

But if the goal is to have a government that represents its constituents, it’s a terrible way to govern, and now maybe Utah County voters are waking up to the reality that it’s the system they’re stuck with.

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