After litigation and political intrigue, Park City seeks to bring closure to heated land dispute, Robert Gehrke reports

The saga of Richardson Flat land grab is a reminder that the public’s business is best done in public.

After months of wrangling, lawsuits and slick political power plays, the saga of 1,200 acres of open space outside of Park City may be entering its final chapter.

This week, Park City announced its plan to annex 1,200 acres on the city’s doorstep, including Richardson Flat, a parcel of open space that had, for more than a year, been a focal point of a battle between Park City and the town of Hideout.

Last year, the town of Hideout in Wasatch County attempted to annex hundreds of acres of the land that had drawn interest from a group of developers that included Sen. Mitt Romney’s son, Josh, and his business partner Nathan Brockbank, who wanted to develop hundreds of homes and a downtown commercial center on the property.

The town was able to use a seemingly minor provision slipped into legislation that passed on the second-to-last night of the 2020 legislative session to reach across the county line into Summit County and make its claim without having to notify either Park City or Summit of its plan.

The move, however, spawned a cascade of fallout.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, who sponsored the change to the law, said he felt misled by the lobbyist for the developers, and lawmakers quickly repealed the provision in a subsequent special session.

Summit County sued to challenge the annexation, contending that Hideout schemed with the developers on the land grab, but had not taken the required steps to notify the public, including its own residents, of the plan and a judge halted the process.

Summit also sued developer Brockbank and Wells Fargo Bank, alleging that the bank helped Brockbank acquire a large portion of the targeted land through an unlawful foreclosure.

Meantime, Hideout town officials scrambled to restart the annexation of land adjacent to Richardson’s Flat before the Legislature’s repeal of the law took effect, beating the deadline to start the process and sending the question to voters who, in June of this year, approved the annexation by a vote of 178-87.

Finished right? Not so fast.

Hours before the vote total was announced, a judge ruled that once against Hideout had failed to follow the requirements of the law, sending Hideout back to Square One — only this time they would have to abide by the original law requiring them to work with Summit County if they want to attempt the annexation again.

That leads to last Friday when, right before the close of business, Park City delivered paperwork to Summit County officials notifying them of their intent to annex the original Richardson Flats parcels. The city plans to preserve it as open space.

“This is something we’ve been talking about doing for a long time,” Park City Mayor Andy Beerman told me Thursday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The town of Hideout is trying to annex open space on the outskirts of Park City near Richardson Flat, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Indeed there is a clause in a 1999 agreement with developers of the Montage resort to keep the land as open space — either for parks, trails or a golf course — in exchange for considerations given to the resort and surrounding units.

“I think what it does do is put to rest any nonsense from other jurisdictions trying to annex it,” Beerman said.

I reached out to Hideout representatives, but the mayor was not available and the city attorney did not respond by deadline.

At this point, Summit County’s role in the process is mostly administrative, said county manager Tom Fisher. The county commission may weigh in at a later date. For now, the county’s job is to acknowledge it received the annexation request and notify residents in and around the area of the plan. The last of those notices was mailed Thursday.

Next week, Beerman said, the issue will come to the Park City Council to vote on the petition and begin a public hearings process.

“There have been enough things going on in the background,” Beerman said. “We want to make sure this is front-and-center and make sure everyone is aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

And that’s what should have happened all along. Because these decisions should have been — and always should be — made through a public process, with input and consideration given to the affected parties, not decided by who can manipulate the rules and subvert the process in order to pull a slick land grab to make them millions at someone else’s expense.