In September, Snowbird quietly bought 5 acres of land at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon where state officials proposed a base station could be built for a gondola to take riders to the legendary ski resort and neighboring Alta.
For the past four years, state officials have mulled options for addressing the crush of traffic flowing through one of the area’s most prized natural wonders — Little Cottonwood Canyon. One option is widening the roadway for dedicated bus lanes and expanding bus services up and down the canyon. The second is to build an enormous 8-mile gondola system to Alta with a stop at Snowbird.
The final environmental impact statement on the issue, which should present the Utah Department of Transportation’s recommendation, is supposed to be released this summer.
The gondola option would require the state to purchase chunks of land to erect the large towers that would carry riders down the 8-mile-long canyon to their winter destinations. A base station would be needed for riders to park their cars or hop off a bus to board the gondola. The station would be on State Road 210 near the mouth of the canyon.
The gondola option has left some wondering: Who owns the land where the base station would be located? How valuable could that land be? Could the land be used for future developments? How would the gondola affect the value of the land and surrounding areas?
The Salt Lake Tribune has learned two parcels of land where the gondola station would sit are owned by one of the gondola’s primary beneficiaries — Snowbird.
Dave Fields, Snowbird’s general manager and president, confirmed to The Tribune the company purchased the land last year. Property records viewed at the Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office indicate the purchase was finalized in September.
4.86 key acres
Before Snowbird purchased it, the land was owned by a company called Quail Run Development, an LLC owned and operated by CW Management Corp.
CW Management was founded by Chris McCandless, a former Sandy city councilman, and Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah state senator for more than 12 years, including six as Senate president. He currently serves as Utah’s homeless services coordinator.
McCandless, who has been public about his support for the gondola, told The Tribune that he sold the land with the condition that it be available for the gondola base station.
“This needs to be the base if they’re going to choose the gondola,” McCandless said. “This is where the base station would be.”
McCandless believes the gondola is the best solution, arguing it’s the most effective way to get people in and out of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The bus option wouldn’t be effective, while imposing a larger footprint on the fragile landscape, he said.
“I know what the needs are in order to accommodate a smooth flow of traffic, and it would not be pretty,” McCandless said.
County parcel records show two pieces of property along SR 210, one totaling 1.6 acres and the other being 3.26 acres, currently belong to LCC Base Property LLC. A search of state business filings shows the company’s address is the same as Snowbird’s corporate office in Holladay. The properties together are valued at over $2 million, according to Salt Lake County’s parcel search map.
Fields said Snowbird bought the land to protect the gondola’s viability as an option. The purchase was made with a different LLC to protect the deal so it could go through, he said.
“If that parcel was gone, the gondola wouldn’t be possible,” Fields said during an interview, saying there is little available land near the canyon mouth.
Fields has been outspoken in his support for the gondola, calling it the only solution. If the gondola is built, he said, Snowbird pass holders would be able to ride it for free.
Fields added that Snowbird is willing to sell the land at cost or donate it to UDOT if the department selects the gondola.
Mitch Shaw, the Region 1 spokesperson for UDOT, told The Tribune that the department was aware of the land sale to Snowbird, but the sale doesn’t have an impact on the department’s final determination. He noted that when UDOT started its EIS, Snowbird didn’t own the land.
“From our standpoint, the owners don’t really matter,” Shaw said.
Commercial development is a ‘lovely rumor’
McCandless said his company still owns an 8-acre parcel that abuts the gondola land to the south and west. Despite what gondola opponents have speculated, McCandless told The Tribune he has no intention to develop the land into condos, retail space or parking lots.
The land, which is just inside Cottonwood Heights city limits, is zoned for single-family residential housing, according to the city’s website. McCandless said he plans to develop the parcel into just that, instead of trying to rezone the land for commercial use.
“That’s the lovely rumor,” McCandless said. “No, we won’t do that. I’ve said that 1,000 times … We intend to leave the zoning just the way it is.”
Niederhauser said he hasn’t been involved with the gondola since taking the job as state homelessness coordinator back in April 2021. He said there has been plenty of speculation online about his involvement, but “the truth is not found in social media,” he told The Tribune.
“I still have an ownership (in CW Management) but it’s a passive ownership,” Niederhauser said. “I’m not actively involved.”
‘This isn’t transparent’
For those who have rallied against the building of the gondola, the Snowbird deal comes across as less than satisfactory.
Brad Rutledge, co-founder and board member of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, was surprised to hear Snowbird bought the land in September. “This isn’t transparent,” Rutledge said. “This comes across as shady.”
Rutledge pointed to Snowbird’s use of a different LLC to purchase the land as a reason to be suspicious.
“At a minimum, this is suspect,” he said.
Multiple elected officials in Salt Lake County have spoken out against the gondola, saying it is an unnecessary cause that would ruin the pristine view of the canyon.
Officials like Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson condemned the prospect of the gondola last month during a rally in June, with some officials describing the project as a boondoggle and the proposed towers as an eyesore.
Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, said he first learned of the deal last winter, and he believes the deal is part of a “good old boy’s club” in the state.
“I wish we were surprised, but we really aren’t that surprised,” Fisher said.
Either option UDOT decides on — expanded bus service or building a gondola — will likely cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out, and the final decision would come down to the Legislature, which would have to pass legislation to fund the project.