Three months into its life as a newly incorporated municipality, Bluff has already found itself in lawyers’ crosshairs with a property owner promising legal armageddon if the Town Council declines to “disconnect” its land from the town boundaries.
The land in question is a 391-acre parcel on the southern tip of Comb Ridge that air-ambulance magnate Joe Hunt acquired from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration two years ago. This was just before the land was included in President Barack Obama’s designation of Bears Ears National Monument, and it remains inside the reduced monument President Donald Trump set aside.
Now Bluff residents want to know what Lyman Family Farm Inc., Hunt’s firm that owns the parcel, intends for land many regard as central to preserving the town’s character and quality of life. About three dozen came to a Nov. 29 public hearing looking for answers that the firm’s lawyer Bruce Baird declined to provide.
“I don’t want to get into a philosophical argument over this,” Baird told residents. “The reason they [Lyman Family Farm] don’t want to be in the town is because the town provides them no benefit and no services. There is no legitimate reason for this property to be in the town.”
Under state law, the Town Council has 45 days after the hearing to make a decision. Many who spoke at the hearing urged the council not to cave to Baird’s pressure.
“Bluff wanted control of our destiny, and that meant planning and zoning, and that meant being able to say what happens within our boundaries,” said resident Marcia Hadenfeldt. “The map was made for a huge town. What was important was the idea that no one would come along to build outside the border to undermine what we worked so hard to get. Stop pulling the rug out from under us when we haven’t even woven the rug yet.”
Bluff voters overwhelmingly approved incorporation last year, setting boundaries that cover 38 square miles, territory that extended along U.S. Highways 191 and 163, reaching 6 miles west of the town center to Comb Ridge.
Lyman Family Farm was silent on Bluff’s incorporation debate before and after the town voted to become a municipal entity. Its silence ended Oct. 18 when Baird, a prominent property-rights lawyer based in Salt Lake City, sent the Town Council and Mayor Ann Leppanen a letter, petitioning for the parcel’s extrication from town jurisdiction. The letter also threatened to take the fledgling town to court if the council rejects the petition.
“Bluff will lose that suit and the [Comb Ridge] Property will be disconnected,” Baird wrote, “but only after Bluff has wasted a fortune on attorney’s fees.”
To prevail, the petitioner must show that disconnection would not make it infeasible for the town to function as a municipality, create islands or peninsulas of unincorporated territory or leave areas within the town’s boundaries where the costs of providing services would increase. Baird argued that the landowner can meet all the legal requirements for disconnection.
“The facts are undisputed,” Baird said at the hearing. “There would be no adverse effect on adjoining property owners because the adjoining property owners are the state of Utah and the United States. There would be no adverse effect on street and public ways because there are none. No effect on water and sewer services because there are none, no effect on law enforcement because there is none.”
Resistance would be futile, he added, as demonstrated in Bluffdale, a formerly agricultural area in southern Salt Lake County that has since been engulfed in suburban sprawl. Baird represented developers who owned 4,000 acres of vacant land who successfully sued to get those holdings disconnected.
Resident Josh Ewing, a pro-monument activist, disputed Baird’s assertions, arguing the attorney’s involvement is evidence that Lyman’s intentions do not align with the town’s interests.
“There is not a good scenario I can come up with for this town of why they would hire an expensive lawyer to write a letter that has multiple demonstrably false statements,” he said. “What could be bad for Bears Ears National Monument? Everything from a surface mine or quarry to a big a-- hotel to blocking off your access to a national monument that was just created. There are all sorts of reasons it could be bad for the adjoining property owners, which are you and me and 300 million other Americans.”
Liza Doran, owner of Bluff’s Cow Canyon Trading Post, proposed Lyman donate the land to the town.
“It is an invitation to participate in something much larger than they are,” she told Baird. “I see you laughing, but think about it. Think about what it means to this community, this county and globally.”
Lyman’s representative Chris Webb declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did tell The Salt Lake Tribune his firm has no current plans to the develop the property nor any interest in donating or selling it to the town.