Utah’s newest ski resort is for the megarich only

Utah’s Wasatch Peaks Ranch and its private ski area in Morgan County is a destination for “the 1% of the 1%.”

Peterson • This tiny town in Weber County enjoys one of Utah’s most majestic backdrops. The Wasatch Mountains rise sharply above the Weber River, forming an unbroken chain of two dozen peaks blanketed in this year’s record-setting snowpack.

This spot, which boasts what could be some of Utah’s finest ski terrain, is being developed after years of talk.

New high-speed lifts reach all the way to the top of Jacob’s Ridge at 9,500 feet above sea level — but don’t think you’ll get a chance to enjoy these powdery slopes. You will need to be well-off enough to be a member of Wasatch Peaks Ranch (WPR) or on close enough terms with a member to be invited as a guest.

Among the largest blocks of privately held land in Utah, the former Gailey Ranch is undergoing a profound transformation into a luxury community, featuring a golf course designed by Tom Fazio, a 3,000-acre, five-lift ski area, a mountain village and 70 miles of trails for the exclusive use of 750 homeowners and their families and guests. The land had been in private ownership for decades and the public has not been allowed access since the 1990s.

The property, which one enters from Peterson, is taking shape on 12,700 acres spanning the east face of the Wasatch from Weber Canyon 11 miles south to Francis Peak, fueled by sales of equities in the project.

The project has been a lightning rod of controversy since it was approved in 2019 by the Morgan County Council. Unresolved lawsuits have flown back and forth, including one filed by the developers seeking $10 million in damages from the project’s loudest critics.

The property’s new path represents a rising trend in Western real estate development, catering to those who have built a massive fortune elsewhere and now want to put it to work enjoying elegant amenities and untrammeled mountain landscapes in solitude.

Utah’s booming northern counties still hold large blocks of undeveloped mountain terrain, lands that went into private hands long ago to support livestock, but are now ripe for human habitation. The question facing the state is the degree to which future development here serves a growing population, or merely fences off entire landscapes as private playgrounds for the ultra-wealthy.

750 homes or 5,000 to 10,000?

“I don’t want you to think that I’m anti-growth because I know that growth comes,” said Cindy Carter, one of the critics who was sued. “This little county has been growing since the day the pioneers stuck their stick in the ground, but it’s grown slowly. And we’ve protected our ag and our rural way of life. And once we start making these sweeping zoning changes, it’s going to change everything and it already has.”

Looking to accommodate the wealthiest “1% of the 1%,” according to proponents, the project is modeled after Montana’s famous Yellowstone Club.

Yellowstone is a resort for members with an 864-lot community next to Big Sky with golf, trails and 2,200 acres of ski terrain — all closed to the public.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Some Morgan County residents oppose Wasatch Peaks Ranch, an exclusive community and private ski resort under development outside the hamlet of Peterson. From left, Brandon Peterson, Shelley Paige, Whitney Croft, Cindy Carter and Dave Pike are concerned with the long-term impact the project could have on their rural community as they gather for a portrait on Friday, April 7, 2023, at the edge of the property about 17 miles from Ogden, Utah. The development, catering to richest ‘1% of the 1%’ is approved for 750 residential units, will come with a Tom Fazio golf course, a village and numerous amenities, including 70 miles of trails for residents’ exclusive use.

The Utah resort developers, known as Wasatch Peaks Ranch LLC, declined The Salt Lake Tribune’s request to visit the property. But managing partner Ed Schultz agreed to an interview. With its 4,500 feet of elevation change, he said, the Gailey Ranch harbors scenic terrain and proximity to airports, which is ideal for a mountain resort.

The land can support golf, skiing, hiking, fishing and other outdoor pursuits, he said, adding WPR’s development footprint will be far less than what could have resulted once the land changed hands.

“The guys we competed with when we were negotiating in 2017 wanted to do a public ski resort with 5,000 to 10,000 homes,” Schultz said. “Peterson would have turned into Kimball Junction [the busy commercial zone outside Park City] with all the infrastructure required and massive change for the community, where ours is much more understated.”

A question on many people’s minds is how such a small community of members — 750 homeowners and their families — will pay for the development and operation of so many high-end recreational amenities.

The initiation and HOA fees and other dues would have to be astronomical, but Schultz wouldn’t provide numbers.

“Our business model is proprietary, but it does work. It’s worked in other locations,” he said. “We feel like we vetted it. We were out working on this two years before we acquired the land.”

Privacy and security for owners

The identities of the Wasatch Peak owners remain a mystery. The company has disclosed one owner as Lessing Stern, son of Deer Valley founder Edgar Stern, but it has steadfastly kept the others under wraps to protect their privacy.

“Privacy and security is very important to the WPR buyer,” proponents said in an FAQ shared with the public in 2019. “Spending time as a family without having to worry about intrusions is a key driver of the value and critical reason to be a WPR member.”

The current owners acquired the 12,700 acres in 2019 from a partnership that included the estates of two prominent Utah ski area developers, the late Dick Bass of Snowbird and Earl Holding of Snowbasin, and businessman Peter Hicks. The listing price was $46 million, but the actual sales price has not been disclose.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sloping eastward into Morgan County from just below a string of 24 mountaintops, the exclusive playground of Wasatch Peaks Ranch, pictured on Friday, April 7, 2023, is emerging. The private drive snakes up to where a development, catering to richest ‘1% of the 1%’ is approved for 750 residential units, will come with a Tom Fazio golf course, a village and numerous amenities, including 70 miles of trails for residents’ exclusive use.

The property may be called Wasatch Peaks, but few of these peaks are actually inside it. Most of the ridgeline lies within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, and remains open to the public from the Davis County side.

Morgan County straddles the Weber River in a bucolic valley before it cuts through the Wasatch Mountains. Proximity to Salt Lake City International Airport also makes it a good location for an exclusive community of second homes whose owners live all over the world.

Early on, WPR hired retired Deer Valley general manager Bob Wheaton as CEO. Last year, Wheaton was replaced by Tiger Shaw, shortly after Shaw stepped down as the head of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

While promising an economic boost to an already booming region, the project has divided Morgan County. There are those who see it as a threat to Morgan’s rural character and others who welcome the tax revenue and jobs the project is expected to bring.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Local supporters argue the project will substantially reduce existing residents’ tax burden and create employment opportunities for an area that doesn’t have many. Even at this early stage, the resort is yielding $2 million in property tax revenue and has created 130 seasonal jobs, Schultz says.

But these benefits are not worth what could be lost, according to Morgan resident Dave Pike.

“A development this big has a major impact on a little farm community like this. If we don’t try to do something to stop it or get it under control, what’s going to stop it from going right around this mountain? Then we will be a Heber City or Park City,” Pike said. “People from here, and their families that have been here for a hundred years, it’s like pushing them out.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Morgan County resident Dave Pike expresses concerns with Wasatch Peaks Ranch, an exclusive community and private ski resort under development outside the hamlet of Peterson, as he gathers with fellow residents on Friday, April 7, 2023.

Pike was one of six residents sued by the development. Second District Judge Noel Hydethrew the developers’ suit out of court and is now considering the residents’ countersuit alleging the WPR abused the judicial system to stifle public debate of the project.

Pike is also part of a group of Morgan residents that petitioned the county to allow a referendum asking voters to decide whether to overturn the county council’s rezone that enabled the development. County officials rejected the petition, triggering a second lawsuit that goes to trial this week in 2nd District Court.

Citing the advice of counsel, Schultz declined to comment on the lawsuits which are both pending before Judge Hyde.

The rezoning was approved in a 6-1 vote by the Morgan County Council, which has since been restructured as a five-member commission. Commission Chairman Mike Newton, who voted to approve the rezone as a council member in 2019, did not return phone messages requesting comment.

A place called The Oaks

Today, construction is occurring largely out of sight. The 18-hole golf course will be ready to play next year and three of the five ski lifts are already up and running, serving 1,600 acres of terrain. Other lifts will be built to connect residential areas with the ski area base.

According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, WPR has reaped at least $92 million through the sale of equity investments and memberships to cover this construction. Equities totaling $45 million have been sold in $5 million blocks and another $47 million was raised in units of $500,000, the price of a WPR membership.

No homes have been completed, but two are under construction and another dozen are undergoing the resort’s internal review process, Schultz said. Meanwhile, the developers have obtained approval to plat out dozens of home sites.

Homes will typically be clustered close to the village where commercial services and other amenities are to be located. The resort’s central feature is called The Oaks, named for an old-growth grove of Gambel oak trees. A lodge will be located here, close to the ski area base.

“Most of the development is not visible as the majority is located in saddles and valleys that are out of sight from existing Mountain Green and Morgan Valley neighborhoods,” Schultz said.

Under the development agreement, the resort is to handle all of the infrastructure that municipalities typically provide, such as water, sewer, roads, gutters, fire protection and stormwater drainage. The county has authorized three special districts over the 11,500 acres of the property in Morgan County to handle these services. None of these costs will be paid by county residents outside WPR. (The property’s remaining 1,200 acres is in Davis County on the other side of the Wasatch crest. There are no plans to develop this high-elevation land.)

A county of mostly private land

In an apparent departure from the development agreement, however, the resort is looking to pipe its wastewater under the Weber River to the already overwhelmed treatment plant in Mountain Green. In the face of growing development pressure on that town, a gateway to the popular Snowbasin Resort ski area, the plant is to undergo a $15 million upgrade that will be mostly covered by low-interest loans from the state.

The resort has agreed to pay double the tap fees and usage rates as users within the Mountain Green Sewer Improvement District, Schultz said.

WPR has secured rights to 2,500 acre-feet of water through an agreement with the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. Its water will be sourced from wells, springs and a diversion from the Weber River.

“The water rights have been perfected and approved by the Utah State Engineer, and there are two functioning wells located at the end of the Morgan watershed, downstream of all other agricultural users,” Schultz said. “We have sufficient water rights to service all of WPR’s needs both now and in the future.”

Unlike most of Utah, Morgan County is predominantly private land. Only 6% of its 390,000 acres is public.

While the public will always be excluded from Wasatch Peaks, the developers are required to preserve nearly 7,500 acres, or 65% of the property as “open space.” Critics are incensed that the resort has resisted encumbering this land with conservation easements, but Schultz said he has other tools for ensuring the land is not developed.

“WPR’s development agreement with Morgan County outlines several additional conservation measures that WPR can pursue, including conservation easements, plat notes, deed restrictions or other restrictive covenants as our development progresses and when the time is right,” Schultz said.

At this stage, his team is looking to develop 2,900 acres in seven different planning areas. They hope to exceed the conservation requirement and spare 75% of the property from development.

Schultz says the county and school district will reap a net bounty of tax revenue from the project. According to a study the developers commissioned, the resort at a buildout of just 475 homes would generate $9 million in annual revenue for the county, dwarfing the $2.5 million it collected in 2019, while adding just $500,000 in annual expenses. Additionally, it would generate $25.7 million for the school district, more than triple the amount the district collected in 2019. This projection is based on an assumption that 90% of WPR residences are second homes, which are taxed at a far higher rate in Utah.

The county consultant that reviewed WPR’s findings concluded the project will result in a significant net increase in revenue, though not as robust as the resort’s forecast. The project could increase the county’s assessed taxable value by $3.5 billion, about triple the entire tax base in 2018, according to the county.

The resort’s critics are skeptical of these numbers. But what they are most worried about are things you can’t put a dollar figure on.

“I understand and have acknowledged this for the last six years, we represent change to a community that hasn’t experienced change,” Schultz said. “A lot of people recognize that for the change coming, we will be the better option.”

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