Open-space advocates come up with $3 million to save parcel at Little Cottonwood Canyon mouth

(Courtesy photo by Utah Open Lands) The mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon is the gateway to one of Utah’s most famous recreation destinations, but private land along Wasatch foothills remains under pressure for high-density development. One such 26-acre parcel, pictured in the lower left of this photograph, will remain open space and incorporated into the Bonneville Shoreline Trail under a $3 million deal reached between a consortium of cities led by Cottonwood Heights and the parcel’s owners.

A 26-acre patch of the Wasatch foothills has passed into public ownership, preventing the spot at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon from becoming an 11-lot subdivision while preserving a critical link in the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

The property’s owners, Rola V Ltd and LC Canyon Partners LLC, had already invested substantially in advancing development plans, but strong financial commitments from affected communities to preserve the property brought the owners to the negotiating table, according to Utah Open Lands, the nonprofit that brokered the deal and helped raise some of $3 million needed to buy the land.

“This had a fully approved development agreement, so getting the landowners to play ball was really a monumental element to this whole deal,” said Wendy Fisher, executive director of Utah Open Lands. “Not only did they say, ‘Yes, we’ll choose conservation,’ which was huge, but at the end of the day, they were overwhelmed with how much people cared, and it resulted in over $1 million in land value contribution from the landowners.”

Major contributions came from Cottonwood Heights City, the state, three other cities and Salt Lake County, as well as 500 private donations. But as the deadline approached, Fisher remained about $200,000 short. The developers, who had already pledged to take $835,000 less than the parcel’s value, agreed to lower the sales price even further to cover the shortfall, according to Fisher.

The biggest contribution came from the city of Cottonwood Heights, which hosted a celebratory event Monday at the site along the east side of State Road 210 where it bends east up the canyon.

“When I saw the Bonneville Shoreline [Trail] begin to develop years ago, it’s always been a high priority to do whatever I could to facilitate its completion, especially through the few miles we have through our city to connect both the Holladay side and the Sandy side,” Mayor Mike Peterson said. “This is just a piece of the puzzle that eventually can be completed for the Bonneville Shoreline, which would be a jewel for our valley to have that completed.”

More than 80 miles of the nonmotorized trail, which hugs the eastern shore of an ancient lake that covered northwestern Utah, has been completed along the Wasatch Front, but many stretches remain lines on a paper. Private property and rugged terrain are the main obstacles to completing the trail in the southern part of Salt Lake County.

Peterson envisions a trailhead on the recently acquired parcel, which abuts the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, but not much else. The land is to remain undeveloped under a conservation agreement.

“We want to maintain it as open space and as natural we can. It’s very iconic in its appearance because of the large granite boulders,” Peterson said. “It has a trail on one end of it already that connects over to the Quarry Trail that goes up Little Cottonwood Canyon.”

The deal’s staggering price tag illustrates the growing pressure on what remains of Utah’s open scenic lands, whose value to the state’s economy are becoming increasingly apparent as residents and visitors alike flocked to Utah’s outdoors during the pandemic.

“We certainly have seen this last year that open spaces were a place for people to connect with one another and stay socially distant. We saw an over 300% increase if not more on all of the open spaces,” Fisher said. “So what we know is that these lands that we recreate on, that we connect with one another on, there are not enough of them.”

People are moving to Utah to enjoy access to its public lands, but the resulting residential growth is threatening that access, particularly in high-growth areas like the Wasatch Front and Washington County.

“The really important thing that we have to understand in cities like Cottonwood Heights, we’re not making any more open space. When it’s gone, it’s gone,” Peterson said. “So we need to do all we can at this point in time to try and save any appropriate piece that we can.”

Also putting in money were Salt Lake City, Draper and Sandy. A $500,000 lift came from the state’s usually dormant LeRay McAllister Critical Lands Fund, which provided the money to kick-start the fundraising campaign, according to Fisher, whose group was behind deals that preserved Bonanza Flat, South Eden, Wasatch Hollow and Armstrong Barn.

“This is about community,” she said. “When I look at the people and the organizations and the cities that participated, you can’t help but realize that this was a watershed moment and everybody did their part to make it possible.”

With the Bonneville Shoreline parcel protected, Fisher is now focused on completing her group’s next project, raising the final $220,000 needed to preserve Midway’s Albert Kohler Legacy Farm as a working dairy and a place where school kids can see where their milk comes from and how cheese is made.