Washington County pays $1M to buy property for a possible park-and-ride lot leading to Zion National Park

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this May 5, 2015, photo hikers walk on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park.

At Wednesday’s auction of state trust lands, Washington County officials showed up with $1 million at the ready and left with title to nearly 300 acres of prime roadside real estate along the gateway to Zion National Park.

The county’s goal is to make the land just west of Rockville available for a park-and-ride lot that would serve as the western terminal of the park’s shuttle system and help alleviate congestion on State Road 9 — particularly in Springdale, which gets choked with tourists most of the year.

“Zion envisions the shuttle coming out this far. [This purchase] is more about preserving that option for the future,” County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said. “Zion has had troubles with RVs. This might be a good place for people to park RVs.”

The Rockville parcel was the priciest sold Wednesday by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, which put 18 parcels on the block totaling 3,200 acres. It was the agency’s largest auction in years.

“This is a function or what’s going on with respect to market conditions,” said SITLA Deputy Director Kim Christy, who conducted the auction at a Salt Lake City hotel. The agency retains rights to the minerals under the lands it sells.

SITLA’s mandate is to optimize revenue off its holdings to support Utah schools, and that sometimes means auctioning desirable parcels that could fetch high prices. Bidders submit sealed offers, which are opened on the day of the auction. The three highest bidders, as well as bidders within 80 percent of the third-highest, are invited to participate in oral bidding.

The biggest buyer Wednesday was Lyman Family Farms, a familiar player in SITLA auctions. The Blanding firm, associated with a controversial Utah-based chain of air medical transport companies, had previously bought 19 SITLA parcels totaling more than 5,200 aces, including one in Bears Ears National Monument at Comb Ridge.

On Wednesday, Lyman’s representatives dropped nearly $1.8 million to buy seven more parcels totaling 2,050 acres, mostly in rugged, scenic areas such as Jenson Canyon in Duchesne County and Square Mountain southeast of Cedar City. Most sold for their minimum bids, but the company did drive up prices on other lots, including one just south of Cannonville in Garfield County.

“I’m looking for 425. This is mighty sweet property, folks,” Christy told bidders before dropping the gavel at $421,000.

That parcel and an adjacent one combining for 519 acres were purchased by St. George sculptor Lyman Whitaker, who paid nearly $800,000 for this scenic land surrounded by Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Kodachrome Basin State Park. Judging from the rampant development unfolding outside Zion, he believes this land will only increase in value.

“From an investment point of view, I think I’m covered,” said Whitaker, famous for those decorative kinetic metal sculptures rotating in the wind all over Springdale. “I’m 76, and I’m painfully aware of life spans.”

He has no plans to commercialize the land that holds views of Bryce’s pink ledges and is zoned for multiple use with 40-acre spacing for buildings.

“I have been looking seriously at doing conservancies when it’s expedient,” Whitaker said. “But I also have been a builder before I was an artist. I would like to fool around with some kind of simple ecological structures, so I wouldn’t preclude building.”

While SITLA netted nearly $3 million, the two most valuable lots on the auction list were not sold Wednesday. A $2.5 million lot outside Mount Carmel was withdrawn because of access problems, while another Zion gateway parcel, located on State Road 9 in Virgin and valued at $1.3 million, failed to attract the minimum bid.

To Renstrom’s relief, no one else bid on the Rockville parcel, so Washington County got it for the lowest price SITLA was willing to take — $1 million. Straddling the highway, it is far bigger than what the county needs for a park-and-rid lot, which would go on the south side of the road.

Renstrom said the county would work with Rockville officials to make sure residents are happy with what happens on the property, which is zoned for open space.