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Several years ago, Jesse Lassley, a Utah real estate developer, built a house in the upper reaches of Mt. Aire Canyon, an enclave of mostly seasonal homes nestled under its eponymous peak above Parleys Canyon.
Without telling his nearly 100 neighbors, he bought up most of the private land in an adjacent drainage last year and developed a plan to carve it into a massive open-pit quarry that would extract 2 million tons of limestone a year. Before the plan became public last month, Lassley sold his Mt. Aire home, according to several homeowners who now feel betrayed and fearful for the canyon’s future should the mine win approval.
Joe Reimann and many others first learned about the proposal from a Nov. 24 article in The Salt Lake Tribune. They were particularly shocked that the application Lassley filed with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) sought approval for the quarry through an expedited process that would allow for no public participation.
“That’s why he sold his cabin a year ago. He knew we would come after him with pitchforks and torches,” said Reimann, a longtime cabin owner, during a recent tour of the canyon.
Reimann may have been joking about the pitchforks and torches, but the quarry’s potential impacts on Mt. Aire’s quality of life and safety are no laughing matter. His concerns are many, but wildfire is the biggest.
“Here we are, years into a drought. The vegetation is very dry. There were two wildfires here this year. One sparked by a dragging chain, another by a catalytic converter. Any heavy equipment could start a wildfire. It would be burning uphill. And if the wind was driving it up the canyon, it would be driving it towards us,” Reimann said. “If the wildfire burns up to this road, we’re trapped. We can’t get out. It’s one way in, one way out, and our only recourse is basically go to the end of the canyon [and] hike over into the Mill Creek.”
Mt. Aire homeowners were not the only ones taken by surprise by the mine proposal, developed by a newly formed LLC called Tree Farm and filed Nov. 12 with DOGM. Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Forest Service had received no prior notice of the proposal, according to officials with those entities.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson condemned the project not long after learning about it, citing the importance of protecting public health, water sources and Wasatch canyons’ natural values.
“The development could potentially scar the natural contours of the landscape and could irreversibly disturb the experiences of countless residents in these two canyons,” she said, referring to adjacent Mill Creek Canyon.
Then on Friday, the County Council voted to initiate a process to amend the county’s zoning ordinances to ban new mineral extraction in the Wasatch foothills and canyons on the edge of Utah’s largest metropolitan area. The proposed amendment will be discussed at community council meetings next month and addressed by the Planning Commission on Feb. 9.
“Creating new mining or extraction operations in our critical wildland-urban interface areas should not be allowed by County ordinance,” Wilson said. “My priority is to support recreation, clean air and water, and the preservation of our canyon’s precious areas, especially as we see increased demand for use.”
On the other side of the debate is the growing demand for aggregates, needed for building homes and infrastructure along the booming Wasatch Front. The foothills abutting these cities are a great source of sand, gravel and limestone, but are they the right place to extract these materials?
For many residents and orchardists contending with busy quarries — at places like Point of the Mountain, North Salt Lake, West Mountain and Devil’s Slide — the answer is no. They are tired of the dust, cracked windshields and racket.
But Matt Lusty, a publicist hired by Tree Farm, says aggregates are best mined near where they are used. Lassley did not make himself available for an interview.
“Utah has been the fastest-growing state in the country over the last decade, and because of that, we’re experiencing record housing costs,” Lusty said. “When we talk about air quality, if you put these mines far away from where people are and where businesses are that are buying these products, that means you’re going to have more trucks driving longer distances. That’s going to be terrible for our air. You want to strategically place this.”
In the case of the proposed quarry, it would be on Interstate 80 with quick access to both Salt Lake City and Park City. It’s pretty much an ideal location from a producer’s standpoint.
Lusty said Tree Farm never intended to hide the project from the public but is instead following a well-trodden approval process that started with the 344-page notice of intent filed last month.
“It’s submitted publicly and we’re trying to follow a transparent process here,” he said. “This has never been an effort to go behind someone’s back and not make the community aware of it. There is a legal process you follow, and that process starts with DOGM.”
The filing is replete with engineering schematics and consultants reports on the quarry’s potential impact on the area’s hydrology, wildlife habitat and air quality.
“Tree Farm is committed to following best practices, environmentally and in terms of life quality for individuals who engage in recreation and who live in Parleys Canyon,” Lusty said. “Anyone who would like to read the full application is welcome to and that will provide information on the precise location of where this mine is being proposed … and that will help residents understand whether or not there would actually be any problems with noise or water or air quality.”
The 344-page filing details how drilling and explosives would be used to excavate an open pit over several decades, yet it barely mentions the nearby subdivision where Lassley once owned a home. According to Lusty, Lassley plans to have a reputable extraction company operate the quarry, but he is not ready to identify the potential operator.
Lusty said noise from the operation would not be noticeable inside Mt. Aire Canyon, but residents are dubious, to put it mildly.
“This mine poses a direct danger to my family, my home, and my neighbors. … Mining would occur on the backside of the same hill that our home is built on. Might our quality of life be affected? Absolutely,” wrote resident Justin Wilde in a letter to DOGM. “I imagine the explosions would shake our windows and walls. Those explosions, combined with the constant rumbling of heavy machinery, could loosen the rocks and boulders above homes in our community, endangering lives.”
Numerous homeowners have contacted The Tribune to voice concerns that the mine could dramatically devalue their property, fill the air with dust emissions, disrupt their water sources, displace wildlife and forever mar the canyon’s scenery enjoyed by Salt Lake County residents.
The parcel in question covers two small drainages that ascend the northeast flank of Grandeur Peak. The quarry would be developed over decades and eventually remove the ridge separating the two drainages. The final result would be a 153-acre floor at the bottom of the pit with terraced walls on either side where it would tap the Jurassic Twin Creek formation, which holds 1.1 billion tons of limestone.
The limestone would be processed on-site. It would take 137 truck trips a day to haul the 2 million tons of annual production Lassley is proposing.
In Tree Farm’s filing, Lassley indicates that he had notified adjoining property owners in writing and identifies two of them as the Richards Family Partnership and the U.S. Forest Service. Neither of these entities had been aware of the project until after The Tribune article posted on Nov. 24.
“I find it disturbing, reckless and maybe illegal not to notify property owners of a project that directly has such a detrimental impact on them,” wrote Susan Trapp, the managing partner of the partnership that owns 664 acres immediately east of the proposed quarry, in a letter to DOGM.
Herself a Mt. Aire homeowner, Trapp is a descendant of the people who homesteaded the area.
“My family has persevered and paid property taxes on their 664 acres for over 100 years,” she wrote. “We will never be able to enjoy it, hike, sleigh ride or sell it. Large trucks and equipment will be literally traveling inches from the front of our property and will be sharing the same and only access road.”
Last December, according to county records, Tree Farm bought all 14 parcels Ira Sachs, an elderly Park City entrepreneur, owned in Parley Canyon, spanning 872 acres.
While the county is now taking a firm stance against the proposed limestone quarry, it took an opposite position 20 years ago. That’s when the Harper quarry sand and gravel pit, about two miles down the canyon from Lassley’s proposal, which had been quarried for decades, won county approval for a major expansion from 11 to 62 acres.
The group Save Our Canyons filed suit to reverse the approval and prevailed, but the county appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, claiming the zoning ordinance did not restrict gravel operations. The high court sided with Save Our Canyons in this legal battle, but the group lost the war. The Harper quarry was still able to expand its operations to its current 55-acre footprint, creating the massive visual impact plainly visible today to every motorist on the north side of the freeway. According to DOGM records, it extracts more than 400,000 tons of aggregate a year, or about a fifth of Tree Farm’s proposed annual production.
In recent months, Tree Farm became a half owner in the Harper quarry along with operator Rulon Harper, according to county assessor records.
Lassley’s foray into the aggregate business will be rocky. Various groups and homeowners are retaining legal representation to challenge the Parleys project to the fullest extent. Mt. Aire resident Katie Hedman posted an online petition that has garnered more than 10,000 signatures in opposition to the mine.
“What’s at stake is the impact to our air quality, our water quality and also just our access to the mountains in general,” she said. “We all love to play and be in the mountains as much as possible.”
A retired corporate pilot, Joe Reimann is the closest thing Mt. Aire Canyon has to a mayor. He oversees the association that takes care of the access roads in the upper canyon.
“I’m not sure I’m the mayor,” Reimann said, “but I’m definitely the old man of the canyon.”
Standing under the cabin Lassley built a few years back, Reimann gazed across the canyon at the ridge separating the proposed mine from his neighborhood, conjuring the dust and noise that may someday rise from behind that ridgeline.
“I love this place,” said Reimann, whose father developed the upper part of the canyon in the 1960s. “Any excuse to get here is a good excuse.”
During the tour of the canyon, homeowner Joel Wyner pointed out several homes dating to the 1960s and 1970s.
“These are not multimillion-dollar properties,” Wyner said. “You’re looking at them, you can see these are properties that have been put together by families that have saved every penny, worked every weekend they could.”
While Reimann worries most about wildfire, Wyner worries about groundwater and avalanches. Various springs provide water to the canyon homes.
“If those springs are affected by the explosions from the mine and it shuts the water off ... who’s going to take care of us?” Wyner said. “Who’s going to belly up and say, ‘We’re going to take care of you?’ Well, I doubt it’s going to be Tree Farm LLC.”