U. has big plans for Research Park, but land patent is getting in the way

A bill proposed by Utah’s congressional delegation would strip feds’ “reversionary interest” in the 593-acre foothill property the U. acquired from BLM in 1968.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Employees have a great view of the valley form the west patio at BioFire Diagnostic at the University of Utah's Research Park. BioFire Diagnostic is one of the top performing companies in the Top Workplaces competition,Thursday, September 28, 2017.

More than 50 years ago, the University of Utah acquired 593 acres in the foothills east of the Salt Lake City campus that would become Research Park, property that now serves as a vital engine of innovation and economic development.

But the land transfer from the Bureau of Land Management came with some strings attached which are now, according to the U.’s “strategic vision plan,” undermining the park’s future.

Under the patent transferring the land’s title to the U., the federal government maintained a finger hold on the property nestled against the Wasatch foothills that Utah’s congressional delegation is now seeking to snap off. The fix would require a literal act of Congress that was introduced last week in both chambers.

Utah’s congressional delegation, with versions of legislation proposed in both the House and Senate, are prepared to do just that, according to a new release from the six Republicans on Tuesday.

“By ending a minor interest the federal government holds in the land,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox wrote the delegation in Dec. 8 letter, “the University will have the flexibility it needs to move forward with updated plans for Research Park, including additional housing for students, a research innovation hub and additional locations for businesses that come out of that research.”

The bill, which spans hardly a handful of sentences, would release the federal government’s “reversionary interest” in the land, but provides no other details.

“With 48 companies, 81 University departments, and a workforce of more than 14,000 people, University of Utah’s Research Park plays a pivotal role in supporting Utah’s strong economy,” said Sen. Mitt Romney in the new release. “Our legislation will ensure that Research Park continues to provide opportunities for Utahns, advance research and development and foster innovation for years to come.”

The news release sang the virtues of Research Park but was mostly silent on why the bill was necessary to “protect” the 320-acre complex of technology and medical buildings. It referenced an unspecified “encumbrance” on the land that needs to be removed to ensure the park “remains productive and thriving.”

Clues can be found in the 1968 document, signed by then Interior Secretary Stuart Udall, transferring title “for the purposes of academic expansion of the University of Utah, for an arboretum, and for highway and utility rights-of-way to serve those purposes.”

The patent, however, reserved the rights to the land’s underground mineral deposits and to existing rights of way for canals, powerlines, storm drains and access roads to the federal government. The patent also required the U. to convey a piece of the land to add to the Pioneer Monument State Park —now known as the This is The Place Heritage Park, just southeast of Research Park.

The transferred land now houses the Natural History Museum of Utah, Red Butte Garden, ARUP, elements of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, BioFire Diagnostics and Myriad Genetics.

The patent’s reversionary clause states: “If the patentee or its successor, attempts to transfer title to or control over the lands to another or the lands are devoted to a use other than that for which the lands were conveyed, without the consent of the Secretary of the Interior or his [or her] delegate, title shall revert to the United States.”

The Utah delegation’s bill would erase that clause.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall endorsed the measure in a letter to the delegation, writing, “We have a bold vision for the future of Utah’s capital city and the future success of the University of Utah. Research Park plays a significant role in achieving it. Disruption of their careful stewardship of the property could stall this critical economic engine for our city and the state.”

The land transfer was accomplished under the 1954 Recreation and Public Purposes Act, which restricts limits commercialization and residential development on the transferred land, according to university spokesman Chris Nelson.

The transfer “anticipated the university using the land for institutional programming, research and technology commercialization. But, those original plans didn’t anticipate residential development,” Nelson wrote in an email. “Times change … and as we look at the next 50 years of Research Park there is a strong desire/need to work to reduce traffic to campus. Strategic housing in Research Park would help reduce trip generation to campus and help with traffic problems by having employees living near where they work.”

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