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Why the Kane County water district is building a golf course

Critics fear it may be part of a plan to pursue water from the Lake Powell pipeline.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) This July 14, 2016, file photo shows then state Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, watching Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as she speaks at a public meeting with San Juan County Commissioners in Monticello. The Kane County water district that Noel heads is proposing to get into the business of golf, and Noel says recreation fits with the taxpayer- and user-funded district's mission.

Mike Noel is looking to get into the golf business and is seeking to harness public money to do it.

The Kane County Water Conservancy District, which the retired southern Utah lawmaker has long run, has initiated plans to develop a destination golf course in Kanab, and has already dedicated funds to purchase land from a prominent local family and hire a top golf course designer.

While district officials see the project as a wonderful boon to Kanab, others wonder if the district is wandering far outside its water-development mission and expertise, involving taxpayers and district ratepayers in a risky investment scheme. Critics contend there is little chance a city of 5,000 could profitably support an 18-hole golf course unless it is marketed to tourists willing to pay a premium. And that’s pretty much what Noel has in mind.

There is no precedent for a Utah water district to develop or operate a golf course, but Noel has sold the idea to the Kane district’s board by framing recreation as a part the district’s mandate, arguing a golf course would spur economic development.

A world-class course would be “a beautiful addition to a community” that would be open to nongolfers as well, Noel told the district board at its Nov. 12 meeting.

“With 4 million tourists coming through this area, there’s a lot of golfers that want to just play this course and they’ll come to play this course and they’ll fly here to play this course and they’ll stay an extra night to play this course,” he said. “We’ve got a town that can provide them with the accommodations. We’ve got the other things that the family can do, the hiking and the tourism. They can go to Bryce Canyon, Zion, Cedar Breaks, all those areas. It’s just an ideal location for that type of amenity.”

Kanab resident Sky Chaney finds the proposal foolhardy and dubious.

“This is just the beginning of the money drain. Why not spend this money to lower our increasing water rates? Are the people of Kane County willing to risk millions of public dollars based on a Golf magazine article?” said Chaney, president of the the Taxpayer Association of Kane County. “How will we pay off the massive unpaid debt if the project fails to produce enough income?”

Noel dismissed such criticism.

“We’ve done our homework on this. We’ve worked on this for many, many years,” he told his board. “There’s a certain number of naysayers in the community, the same names that show up and don’t want any progress and are ready to challenge anything we do about water and recreation.”

Public money

At a previous meeting in October, board members voted to put down $10,000 to hold a six-month option to buy 74 private acres and hire renowned architect David McLay Kidd to begin preliminary design work for $75,000.

The site is on the Arizona state line south of the district’s Jackson Reservoir within Kanab’s city limits. The district calculates the entire project would cost $5 million to build and cover 210 acres, including a state trust parcel that the district would lease and an old gravel quarry on federal land that Noel hopes to acquire for free through the Recreation and Public Purposes Act.

The 74 private acres, which appraised for $1.26 million, is owned by the Chamberlain family, whose ranching roots in Kanab date to pioneer times.

Chamberlains sit on the Kanab City Council, Kane County Commission and the water district board. Water board member McKay Chamberlain recused himself from votes on the land acquisition.

At the October meeting, some board members voiced concerns about the lack of a business plan before committing money to buy the land. In response, Noel incorrectly told them that providing recreation is an explicit part of the district’s mission.

“I thought people were supportive of this. We have to make a stand. We can get private property. [Or] we can sit on our duff and not get it done,” Noel said. “One of our mandates is recreation and water is recreation. It is part of our charter to produce recreation, and I don’t think we spend a lot on developing recreation. I don’t have any problem selling this to the public and be able to justify it.”

Contrary to Noel’s claim, the water district’s establishing document, a four-page legal brief filed in 6th District Court, makes no reference to recreation. When The Salt Lake Tribune sought clarification from a district official, she sent the district’s 2017 water management plan, which does say the district was organized for “the purpose of conserving and developing water for multiple uses,” including recreation. But nowhere does it indicate providing recreation is part of the district’s mission.

The state law that enables the formation of water districts also does not say anything about recreation. It does contain an open-ended provision to “promote the comfort, safety, and welfare of the people of the state.”

Noel, who did not respond to a request for comment, hopes to see participation from other local governmental entities, such as city and the county. Indeed his proposed funding scheme would require their buy-in. While funding has yet to be determined, Noel suggested the best option is to obtain a low-interest $5 million loan from Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund, or CIB, and pay it back with revenue raised by Kane County’s sales tax levied on tourist lodging.

Chaney noted Kanab has a golf course that went belly up a few years after the city sold it at a loss. The nine-hole Coral Cliffs course now sits unused, filling with weeds.

At the Nov. 12 meeting, board member Ben Clarkson, a real estate agent who once ran the Coral Cliffs course, said the proposed course will occupy land with much more favorable soils than the defunct one. Kanab’s 184-day growing season stretches from April to October, and Clarkson estimated golfers can play 300 days a year in Kanab.

“The income generation,” he said, “will easily justify the payments and the loans for TRT [transient room tax] moneys and those things to show the benefit of the economy that this would add.”

Pipeline dreams

Critics see the course as a way for the water district to bolster its case that Kane County needs the water that could someday be passing through in a costly pipeline proposed across southern Utah delivering water from Lake Powell to St. George.

Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council was baffled that the water district can claim it is running short of locally available water, yet has no trouble irrigating a high-end golf course in the desert.

“The Kane water district has been working to develop as much water as possible to make way for the Lake Powell pipeline,” Frankel said. “They know from the documents on the pipeline there is no need for the water, so their strategy is to change that with projects like the proposed golf course. You can hear it in the board meetings; the course is a meant to encourage demand.”

Because it failed to document a need for the water, the Kane district was recently pressured to pull out of the Lake Powell pipeline’s environmental review. But Noel has made it clear that his district still intends to draw up to 4,000 acre-feet of water from the pipeline some day.

The 200 to 300 acre-feet needed to water the proposed course would not tap culinary supplies, but would come from shares in a local irrigation company. Additionally, Noel told his board that the links could eventually use treated wastewater from a plant Noel is pitching to city officials.

“That secondary water is perfect use as a golf course,” he said. “That can be cleaned up to golf course standards very easily.”

The golf course has the support of Kanab Mayor Robert Houston and county officials, he said. The mayor did not return a phone message, nor did Camille Johnson Taylor who heads the Kane County Travel Council.

While participation in golf has remained flat for several years, there has been a marked uptick since the arrival of the pandemic, according to industry observers. Unlike many other recreational activities, golf can be played comfortably while maintaining social distance.

“It’s been a silver lining for the golf industry,” said Jacob Miller, executive director of the Utah Golf Association. “Everyone in the state is running record numbers of rounds. We are going to see that into next year.

He noted that courses built in remote areas like Kanab need to be designed by renowned architects if they expect to attract golfers willing to travel. David Kidd’s name is on such courses as Oregon’s Bandon Dunes and eastern Washington’s Gamble Sands, which are thriving despite locations far from population centers. Kidd is also spearheading the ongoing $7 million renovation of Entrada at Snow Canyon country club in St. George.

“There is always room for another great golf course in Utah,” Miller said. “There is nothing else in that part of the state.”

There hasn’t been much golf course construction in southern Utah lately outside of Copper Rock, which opened in Hurricane in March. Castle Rock and Lake Powell National in Page, Ariz., are the two closest 18-hole courses to Kanab, located 63 and 74 miles away, respectively.

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