Salt Lake County mining ban draws lawsuit from Parleys quarry developers

Tree Farm LLC claims a “vested mining use” to all its land in Parleys Canyon stemming from the existing Harper quarry.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The northeast flank of Grandeur Peak, pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, would be the site of a massive limestone under a proposal by a Parleys Canyon property owner.

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Looking to kick open a regulatory path for a new limestone quarry in Parleys Canyon, a Utah company has filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Salt Lake County’s recent ban on mining.

Tree Farm LLC owns land under Grandeur Peak, where it seeks to carve open a pit for extracting and crushing stone needed in Utah’s construction boom. But before the company could apply for conditional use permits, the Salt Lake County Council last month barred new mines in the Wasatch foothills.

While the central Wasatch has a rich and storied mining legacy, county leaders, joined by officials from Salt Lake City and Millcreek, said mineral extraction is no longer compatible with the needs of residents, who rely on these mountains for water, scenery and recreation.

In a suit filed May 11 in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court, Tree Farm, owned by Salt Lake City developer Jesse Lassley, contends not only did the county overstep its authority by banning mines, but Tree Farms holds a historic right to mine in Parleys Canyon because property it owns elsewhere in the canyon has been mined for decades.

“The Ordinance, while broadly applicable, was directly targeted at Tree Farm and harms Tree Farm’s property rights and interests,” alleges the suit. “The County Council was on notice that its enactment of the Ordinance was prohibited by applicable laws, but proceeded to pass it anyway, in flagrant derogation of the rights of Tree Farm and other property owners in the County.”

In 2019, as conflicts over gravel pit expansions were flaring up and down the Wasatch Front, the Utah Legislature stepped in with HB288, a bill that bars counties and municipalities from restricting the mining or processing of sand, gravel and other “critical infrastructure materials.” After the bill’s passage, such operations were put under the exclusive purview of the state, the suit argues.

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

According to Tree Farm’s reading of that legislation, state law prohibits counties from adopting, enacting or amending an existing land use regulation, ordinance, or regulation in ways “that would prohibit, restrict, regulate, or otherwise limit critical infrastructure material materials operations.”

The company alleges this law forbids Salt Lake County from even initiating proceedings to consider ordinances that could restrict the production of sand, gravel, stone and other aggregates used in construction.

The Salt Lake County Council adopted a zoning ordinance banning any new mining operations in the Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone, or FCOZ, covering much of the country’s share of the Wasatch Mountains in April. The zone spans 136,000 acres, or about a quarter of the county’s total land.

The suit alleges the ordinance tramples on Tree Farm’s property rights and it “will suffer immediate and irreparable injury such that monetary damages would be an inadequate remedy.” It does not, however, specify the nature of those alleged harms.

With last week’s legal filings, Tree Farm’s lawyers also turned over what seems to be their ace in the hole in the form of a 2019 declaration signed by the land’s previous owner, an elderly Park City entrepreneur named Ira Sachs.

In 2020, Tree Farm acquired the proposed mine site and several parcels, totaling at least 1,000 acres, from Sachs. Key exhibits it filed with the suit memorialize Sachs’ claim that he held a “vested mining use” on all this land, even parcels that had not been mined.

This declaration was signed several months after HB288 became law, which carved out additional protections for existing quarries.

According to the documents, Sachs had acquired the various parcels, including the 634 acres Tree Farm is proposing for the new quarry, between 1992 and 1997 with the intent to mine them. Some of the Sachs land, namely the Harper Quarry, had been mined as far back as 1890 by the Portland Cement Co., later known as Utah Portland Quarries, Inc.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Sachs operated that large quarry, which is conspicuously apparent on the north side of Interstate 80, as a joint venture with Rulon Harper. It remains highly productive to this day and gives a preview of the impacts arising from the proposed mine, which would be sited a mile up the canyon on the south side of the freeway.

The Sachs declaration, which is co-signed by Rulon, contends this longtime operation creates a “vested” mining right to all the former Sachs parcels, which extend far up and down Parleys Canyon.

The suit characterizes the new ordinance, which eliminates mining as a conditional use within the FCOZ, as a prohibition on “all” mineral extraction and processing. However, it is not clear whether the ordinance affects several massive aggregate quarries lining the Wasatch foothills from the Davis to Utah county lines, since they already hold conditional use permits.

There is little disagreement that the disputed ordinance was adopted in direct response to Tree Farm’s surprise filling last November, seeking permits from the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) to build and operate a new 400-acre strip mine in Parleys just a few miles into the canyon from Salt Lake City.

Word of the proposal first became public in a Nov. 24 story in The Salt Lake Tribune, which triggered an outpouring of opposition. Two weeks later, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and her staff started the ball rolling on a zoning amendment that would block it and any other new operation in the Wasatch foothills.

“We just learned of the complaint this afternoon and are in the process of reviewing it,” Wilson said Monday. “Once we complete the review, we will act accordingly. We remain confident that the county has acted appropriately.”

The county has also denied Tree Farm’s application for a business license in December, stating that the property at issue does not have a conditional use permit. Mine proponents recently said they would withdraw their permit for a large operation to focus on a much smaller proposal, encompassing less than 20 acres, which entails a much less rigorous DOGM review.