Salt Lake County moves to block a new mine in Parleys Canyon

The County Council proposes a change in its ordinance to block new rock mines and quarries in the canyons.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Parleys Canyon property owner has proposed operating a massive limestone quarry on a 634-acre parcel at this spot in Parleys Canyon, on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.

Salt Lake County leaders took action Friday that may end up blocking a limestone quarry planned for Parleys Canyon.

The County Council met in a special meeting Friday morning solely to kick off a legislative process intending to stop any new attempt to mine sand, gravel or rock out of the Wasatch canyons and foothills just east of Salt Lake City.

This move came in reaction to a newly formed limited liability company called Tree Farm. That company wants to use drills and heavy explosives in Parleys Canyon near Grandeur Peak to pull out 2 million tons of crushed limestone each year.

This plan became public in November after the company submitted a filing to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. This notice of intent caught Mayor Jenny Wilson and the council by surprise. Wilson at the time said she was “gravely concerned” about the proposed quarry in the canyon that connects the Salt Lake Valley to Park City by way of Interstate 80.

The site of the proposed quarry in Parleys Canyon. (Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

During Friday’s special meeting, the council voted to submit a change to the county’s Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone, or FCOZ, to the planning commission. This required first step will lead to public hearings and more study before the council can take final action. This amendment would prohibit any mineral extraction, mine, quarry or gravel pit that was used for the removal of “sand, gravel, and/or rock aggregate.”

It aims squarely at the proposal by Tree Farm principal Jesse Lassley to cut a massive trench into the side of Grandeur Peak immediately south of the freeway. Grandeur is a popular hiking destination on the ridge separating Parleys and Mill Creek canyons.

Tree Farm has yet to submit any applications for conditional use permits with the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District, so Lassley may be unable to argue that the county is applying the revised zoning ordinance retroactively on his project.

“Today’s action provides notice that the Salt Lake County Council intends to protect the forestry and recreation zones in our canyons from the negative impacts of new mining projects,” Council Chair Steve DeBry said.

Wilson added, “I believe if we don’t act boldly and swiftly, we’ll end up with outcomes that threaten our quality of life. I believe this amendment is necessary to assure that we have ongoing preservation in our canyons, safe recreation, that we mitigate health risks to residents.”

The planning commission is expected to consider this change in February.

Lassley, who owns the 634-acre parcel that would be mined, wants to extract limestone, used in making concrete and in a variety of other construction applications, according to his Nov. 12 filing with state mining regulators. Kassidy Wallin, Lassley’s attorney handling the mine proposal, did not immediately return a phone message Friday.

The mine would be less than a mile west of Mount Aire Canyon, a community of about 90 mostly seasonal homes whose residents were stunned to learn of the proposal from a Nov. 24 story in The Salt Lake Tribune.

“I feel good about what the county is doing. However, I suspect they will get their lawyers on it and attack it from every angle,” said Joe Reimann, a longtime Mount Aire homeowner. “It’s a win in the first battle.”

Reimann and other residents have organized a campaign against the mine and posted an online petition that has already garnered more than 9,200 signatures.

In a related action earlier in the week, DOGM Director John Baza rejected Lassley’s parallel proposal to develop a small mine, under 20 acres, at the same site. Small mining operations are subject to much-less rigorous reviews and public participation than those exceeding 20 acres.

“In the interest of administrative efficiency,” Baza wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to Lassley, DOGM will focus exclusively on his application for the larger operation, whose footprint would exceed 400 acres.

On Friday, Lassley’s attorney filed papers with the Oil, Gas and Mining Board, asking the panel to overrule Baza and instruct DOGM to process Tree Farm’s application for a small mine. Wallin argued that the proposal for the small mine is separate from the one for the large mine and must be considered on its own merits.

“The Division has acted contrary to its prior practice and has not provide a fair and reasonable basis or the inconsistency,” Wallin wrote in the filing. “It is unfair and unreasonable for the Division to simply decide that the two notices are one in the same...While it is true that Tree Farm’s long-term intent is to commence operations for a large mine, Tree Farm’s immediate intent is to commence operations for a small mine and the Division has illegally ignored that immediate intent and Tree Farm’s legal rights under existing law.”