Lionsback Resort above Moab is under construction, after delays and litigation

The development is being built on SITLA land and critics say it will exacerbate Moab’s growing pains.

(Invent Development Partners) A conceptual design for the first phase of the Lionsback Resort, a vacation development in Moab that is currently under construction.

Moab • After nearly 15 years of delays and several court battles, construction has finally started on a ritzy development near the entrance to Moab’s Sand Flats Recreation Area.

The Lionsback Resort, which is being built on Utah school trust land 400 feet above the Moab valley floor, is slated to feature a 150-room luxury hotel, a 7,500-square-foot convention center, and 188 houses that are being pitched as vacation getaways.

The first phase of development will be completed in the late fall of 2022 and includes 35 residential units, ranging from 1,600 to 3,000 square feet, which will be adjacent to the Hell’s Revenge four-wheel-drive trail. Nearly all of those units have already been sold.

The hotel size was scaled back in 2017 after a group of Moab residents successfully sued the Moab City Council for allowing significant modifications to the original proposal without proper public hearings. But critics of the development — who have watched Moab transform from a sleepy uranium town to a world-renowned recreation mecca with sky-high real estate prices — say that even the current iteration is too large and will add to the city’s overtaxed infrastructure, affordable housing shortages and traffic problems.

“The community has been, in general outspoken, against development up at Lionsback for decades,” said Grand County Commissioner Sarah Stock, who was a plaintiff in the 2017 lawsuit as a private citizen. “I share that sentiment. It’s our gateway to Sand Flats, and lately people feel like they’re losing Sand Flats just because it’s so overrun with UTVs [off-road utility terrain vehicles].”

The recreation area provides access to the Slickrock Trail, a mountain bike and dirt bike destination, as well as numerous four-wheel-drive trails. Traffic noise and congestion related to the exploding popularity of UTVs use on city streets and nearby federal public land has been a flashpoint in Moab. In the spring, an effort to impose a curfew for off-highway vehicles failed to advance in the Utah Legislature despite support from Moab City officials and the Grand County Commission.

“My house is near the path up to Sand Flats,” Stock said, “and we already hear the Mill Creek Drive traffic. The idea that there’s going to be this giant development up on the top where before there wasn’t anything spurred me to sign on to that lawsuit.” She added there are additional worries about sprawl and water quality impacts on the aquifers related to Lionsback.

Jon Dwight, president of Invent Development Partners, said his company has made every effort to mitigate some of those concerns during the project’s lengthy planning process. Dwight said the Lionsback Resort is subject to strict watershed protection measures and traffic studies show that most of the vehicles accessing the Sand Flats area will be recreational users, not those staying at the development.

“Our family has been a part of the Moab community for a couple of decades,” said Dwight, whose stepfather Mike Baker initiated the project in 2004 while he was an owner of Moab’s Gonzo Inn. “We’re excited to be moving forward.”

On the resort’s website, developers use the term “casitas” to describe the one- to two-story residences with two-car garages and up to three bedrooms and three bathrooms while pointing out that 70% of the development’s 175 acres will remain open space.

“They romanticize it as some cute little desert bungalows, nestled in the landscape,” said Carol Mayer, who lives less than a mile from the development site and was another plaintiff on the 2017 lawsuit. “It’s not going to be like that.”

Moab is also in the midst of a housing shortage which has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. Service industry jobs in restaurants, guiding companies and hotels have reported worker shortages throughout the year. In mid-summer, the cheapest home on the market was $450,000 and even the Moab City Police Department had been struggling to stay fully staffed because officers cannot find an affordable place to live.

Mayer added that Sand Flats and Moab are already seeing record visitation. “It’s unfathomable how this is going to change things further,” she said.

Dwight acknowledged that the affordable housing crisis is affecting cities and towns across the country, and he said the hotel phase of the project is expected to include 18 units of employee housing to help alleviate some of those pressures.

Revenue for Schools

Lionsback Resort has its origins back in 2004, when Baker brokered a deal to take over a lease on a parcel of School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) land near Sand Flats. The area was used as a campground and was “out of control” with social trails, trash and “rambunctious” parties and, according to Dwight, was not a pristine piece of desert.

The developers worked out a preliminary agreement with both SITLA and Moab City in 2008, but the financial crisis and the first of the lawsuits against Lionsback delayed the project. Then the 2017 lawsuit forced modifications to the project that increased the density of the hotel plans.

SITLA, which is mandated by the Utah Legislature to produce maximum revenue from its 3.4 million acres of land to fund Utah public schools, will get a percentage of the final sales price of the residential units in Lionsback, at which time the land will become private. The hotel and restaurant will pay 2.5% of gross sales receipts to SITLA in perpetuity, and SITLA provided developers with a $4 million loan to facilitate bringing power, water and sewer utilities to the site.

“We’re very happy the project is moving forward,” said Marla Kennedy, a spokesperson for SITLA. “We know it’s taken a long time, but we’re happy to see money being generated for our beneficiaries, especially the general fund for public schools.”

SITLA land is exempt from local planning and zoning ordinances, the agency’s mission to generate maximum revenue from holdings have long been a source of tension with locals. SITLA is involved in a project that is upsetting longtime ranchers who are seeing grazing lands leased to luxury camping developments and other massive subdivision proposals near Moab.

In Spanish Valley, which is located in San Juan County just a few miles south of Moab, a development is planned on 5,300 acres of SITLA land that could eventually house 14,000 people, nearly doubling the population of San Juan County. Moab’s current population is 5,300.

Stock said she’s been critical of SITLA’s state-mandated practices since she was a student at Moab High in the early 2000s. At the time, the development of SITLA land in Castle Valley, where she grew up, was causing controversy. She has since opposed tar sands and other fossil fuel projects on SITLA land in the state as program director for Living Rivers, a conservation nonprofit.

“All of these horrible projects I’ve been fighting all over the state all come back to SITLA,” Stock said, who questioned whether fossil fuel and development plans will benefit Utah’s school children, as SITLA claims, or will exacerbate global warming and other environmental issues.

“SITLA should develop in a way that will be resilient and that will withstand the changes that are coming with climate change,” she said. “Doubling the size of Moab up into Spanish Valley with unknown water resources and limited water resources is not that.”

But for Dwight, the much smaller Lionsback Resort seems to present evidence that in Moab, if you build it, they will buy it.

“The sales speak for themselves,” Dwight said. “We think we’re bringing something to Moab that hasn’t been here before, and I think that the buyers at Lionsback are the type of buyers who will want to be involved in the community: second homeowners.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.