Parleys quarry is about to get a road paved to its doorstep, even though it’s not approved yet

Neighbors weren’t informed about the plan to close a dirt road they use for access.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over the objections of nearby residents and Salt Lake County, Granite Construction proposes mining limestone at this location in Parleys Canyon, pictured July 27, 2022. Without consulting various stakeholders, the Utah Department of Transportation has authorized Granite to gate and upgrade the dirt road, visible along the southern edge of Interstate 80, that access the proposed quarry property owned by developer Jesse Lassley.

A controversial limestone quarry proposed for Parleys Canyon has yet to win approval, but project developers have already won authorization from state highway officials to perform road upgrades across state land.

Preliminary construction on the road was to begin Thursday before objections raised by nearby residents prompted the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) to insist Granite Construction pause the work.

Without informing neighboring property owners, the county or residents of nearby Mt. Aire, UDOT on Oct. 31 issued Granite an “encroachment permit” authorizing the firm and property owner Tree Farm LLC to fence off and widen the road that accesses the hillside and ravines proposed for I-80 South Quarry. The plan would block access to land used by Mt. Aire Canyon homeowners to park their snow machines, potentially leaving them unable to access their cabins in winter.

The move upset Mt. Aire residents and property owners, who were neither informed nor consulted about Granite’s plans to close access to the dirt road that parallels the freeway’s eastbound lanes, according to resident Freddie Stromness.

“I believe [Tree Farm principal] Jesse Lassley has now directed his anger at the Mount Aire community for opposing him and is looking for any available way he can to hurt the community,” said Stromness, who heads the association that maintains the narrow winding road used by residents of the 100 cabins in Mount Aire Canyon. That community and the proposed quarry share an access point at the mouth of this Parleys side canyon at Exit 132 on Interstate 80.

UDOT regional director Robert Stewart acknowledged the permit should have been handled differently.

“I regret a lot of this. If this a UDOT project, we would go out and canvas the neighborhoods and talk to interested stakeholders and develop a plan with them,” Stewart said. “When it comes to an encroachment permit, that is not part of the overall process. That’s not typical, but to be honest, it should have been. We are circling back with the contractor to go back to the drawing board to come up with a solution that addresses all the needs of the stakeholders.”

Lassley’s publicist said Tree Farm followed UDOT’s standard permitting process and acknowledged the quarry operator’s plan would inconvenience Mount Aire residents.

“Any road enhancements that would prevent parking will be delayed until spring to ensure that landowners in Mount Aire have time to make necessary parking adjustments, while utilizing this area through the winter,” publicist Matt Lusty said.

The UDOT-owned road in question leads to a 634-acre parcel Lassley acquired in 2020. He later partnered with Granite to build and operate the quarry on the site, while he and his lawyers orchestrate legal maneuvers against Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City to clear a path for the quarry that is facing fierce opposition but is supported by a few developers and their allies in the Legislature.

The site is located about three miles up Parleys from Salt Lake City and Millcreek’s foothill neighborhoods.

County officials fear the mine would degrade the scenic and natural qualities enjoyed by thousands of residents and visitors. The nearby cities oppose the mine because of its potential to unleash dust emissions and to degrade groundwater. Salt Lake City has moved to block mine proponents’ access to city-controlled water rights needed to operate a quarry, which is the subject of one of many lawsuits the project has spawned.

The first the county officials learned of the road project was late Monday when they were informed by a concerned resident. There is not much they can do to influence it, according to Catherine Kanter, deputy mayor of regional operations.

“Our team has reviewed the permit materials, and based on an initial reading, it appears that Salt Lake County’s land use authority may not apply to this particular situation if the road at issue is owned entirely by the state,” said Catherine Kanter, deputy mayor of regional operations. “Salt Lake County remains committed to defending its land use authority and other jurisdictional rights and will continue monitoring the proposed road project.”

Lassley also hadn’t bothered to inform the county of his quarry plans a year ago when he first applied for a large-scale mining permit from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, or DOGM. At the time he proposed an open pit that would grow to about 400 acres over time, but he has since scaled back the proposal to just 20 acres to qualify for a much less rigorous “small mining operation” permit.

Under pressure from Utah lawmakers, DOGM issued the permit in August, but the project still needs approvals from the Department of Environmental Quality and possibly a conditional-use permit from the county, which has already indicated it won’t be issued.

Earlier this year, the County Council amended the zoning ordinance to ban new mining operations in the Wasatch foothills and canyons. That move, which came in direct response to the proposed quarry, is now the subject of a lawsuit Lassley filed, alleging state law bars counties from restricting operations that produce “critical infrastructure materials,” a euphemism for sand, gravel, crushed stone and other low-value aggregates needed for roadways and construction.

According to Stewart, the UDOT permit hinge’s on Lassley’s desire to develop his property, whether for a mine or something else.

“We don’t have a position regarding the quarry,” Stewart said. “Our normal business operation [for issuing an encroachment permit] is to say, ‘yes.’ The owner said if the quarry is not approved, he intends to put some cabins up there.”

Still, the road upgrades would mark the first changes on the ground associated with the controversial quarry. While minor compared with the overall project, the new fence represents a major change for Mount Aire residents.

They only found out about it Monday in the form of a message sent from Granite’s “public information team,” explaining that crews would begin installing posts on Thursday. The brief message said residents could still use the parking area until spring when construction would begin in earnest.

The message came as a slap in the face to some residents. As a former Mt. Aire homeowner, Lassley would have known how important the winter parking area is to his erstwhile neighbors, according to Stromness.

“We would be blocked without making some other arrangements, which are difficult because of the lack of flat areas around there,” Stromness said. “My belief is that they do not have the right to block public access down that road. Jesse seems to believe that even though that’s a UDOT road that he has exclusive use.”