Will Morgan County residents get to vote on exclusive resort project?

The 750-home Wasatch Peak Ranch, featuring Utah’s first private ski area, has become a lightning rod for litigation, including ‘anti-SLAPP’ action.

(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. Four of these residents have filed suit, seeking a court order forcing Morgan County to hold a voter referendum on the project. Not pictured is co-plaintiff Robert Bohman.

It’s been more than three years since Morgan County officials approved the 11,500-acre resort known as Wasatch Peaks Ranch, with its 750 residential units and private ski area, but the contentious litigation the project has spawned remains in full swing.

A big question before Utah’s 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde is whether Morgan’s 14,000 residents should get to vote on whether to overturn the 2019 ordinance that allowed the project to move forward.

[Related: Utah’s newest ski resort is for the megarich only | Takeaways from our report on Wasatch Peak Ranch]

Last week, Hyde conducted a bench trial for a suit brought by five of those residents trying to get such a referendum on the ballot, which county officials had rejected. Project opponents argue the voters should be allowed to decide whether a development of WPR’s magnitude is right for the formerly unmarred Wasatch Mountains rising to the west of the Weber River.

The project deviates from Morgan County’s general plan as well as a community-generated vision document for the rural county’s future, according to plaintiff Whitney Croft.

“The great thing about referendums is it lets the people decide,” said Croft, who runs an exotic bird aviary in Morgan. “If they want it, then so be it.”

While Judge Hyde prepares his forthcoming ruling in that case, he’ll be preparing to hear motions, filed under seal on Wednesday in a separate case initiated by the developers.

Originally that suit sought $10 million in damages from the five referendum petitioners — Croft, Robert Bohman, Brandon Peterson, David Pike, Shelley Paige — and a sixth project critic named Cindy Carter, claiming their anti-WPR activism illegally disrupted the project’s ability to attract investors. They identified two investors who each bailed on a $5 million investment opportunity. But according to federal disclosures, the developers have successfully netted $92 million in equity investments and memberships, which cost $500,000 a piece.

In August 2021, Hyde found the developers’ claims lacking, concluding the critics cannot be punished for participating in a democratic process that is their right as citizens.

“They knew they weren’t going to win,” Bohman told the Tribune. “This is all about intimidation.”

The judge is now considering the critics’ counterclaims brought under Utah’s so-called anti-SLAPP statutes, referencing an acronym that stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” Such suits are considered an abuse of the judicial process to discourage public debate, but winning an anti-SLAPP action in Utah requires meeting a high burden of proof.

The issue currently before Hyde has to do with WPR’s financials, which the critics want to access to determine the level of damages to seek against WPR’s developers and hidden owners.

“There needs to be punitive damages, because what’s to stop the next outfit from coming in and throwing their money and bullying the voters and the residents?” Brandon Peterson said.

Peterson and Bohman both come from families whose roots go back to pioneer times in Morgan County and publicly argued against rezoning the former Gailey ranch to “resort special district” in 2019. At the time, WPR had recently acquired the 12,700-acre property, some of which spills over the mountains into Davis County, from a partnership that included the estates of the late Utah ski magnates, Earl Holding and Dick Bass, for an undisclosed sum.

The County Council approved the WPR rezone in a 6-1 vote, prompting Croft’s group to submit a petition for a referendum challenging that ordinance. But then-County Clerk Stacy Netz Clark rejected their petition on purely technical grounds.

It failed to include the required “certification” that each of the sponsors was a Utah resident and a copy of the contested ordinance, according to court records.

The five sponsors filed suit, arguing the petition was valid and seeking a court order to hold a referendum. WPR intervened on the county’s side and has been doing the legal heavy lifting ever since. It contends the critics failed to meet the strict requirements for submitting a referendum petition under Utah law.

A notary public, Croft notarized her four fellow sponsors’ signatures, but the company alleges Croft’s notarizations are not valid. And it says she blew a 5 p.m. filing deadline for submitting the petition, noting the document was timestamped at 5:05 p.m.

Citing the advice of counsel, WPR managing director Ed Schultz declined to comment on the lawsuits, but he defended the project in an interview with The Tribune. Schultz said the development will fit nicely in the landscape, greatly expand the tax base and job opportunities in Morgan County, and have a smaller footprint than those of competing proposals for the Gailey property.

“We’re creating a legacy project. We’re doing this for ourselves and future generations, our members’ kids,” Schultz said. While the majority will be extremely wealthy second homeowners from out of state or country, he said, the club’s members will be carefully screened.

“The community is starting to understand that these are good people. And while they are able to participate in this amazing destination, they still put their pants on one leg at a time,” he said. “Our membership qualification process is something we take very serious. It’s not just if you have a check, you can join. There’s a full application process.”

Meanwhile, work has progressed on the project and WPR has spent millions implementing its ambitious plans. Three ski lifts have been installed, construction on an 18-hole championship-caliber golf course is underway, roads have been built and the county has approved numerous platted homesites, according to court filings. Also on tap are 70 miles of trails, an equestrian center, a clay course and a base village, all for the exclusive use of WPR members and their guests.

WPR is also in litigation with a ski lift contractor that accuses the developers of breach of contract. In that case also pending in 2nd District Court, Highlander Ski Lift Services & Construction, Inc., based in Heber City, alleges it is owed nearly $1 million for its work in 2021 installing concrete foundations and structural elements for lift terminals and towers.

WPR’s then-CEO Bob Wheaton hired Highlander, which he had worked with previously during his years as Deer Valley’s general manager. But the lift installations at WPR did not go smoothly because the equipment wasn’t delivered on time and the developers failed to maintain road access to the construction sites, the suit alleges.

WPR’s attorneys blame Highlander, saying the contractor failed to complete the lifts in time for the 2021-22 ski season. They filed a counterclaim and a motion to dismiss the Highlander suit, alleging Highlander failed to plan, equip and staff the project properly. At one point, the contractor dropped a lift tower from a helicopter, damaging the tower and leaving the helicopter grounded.

A second tower was damaged when it collapsed because Highlander’s understaffed team failed to properly tighten its anchor bolts, the countersuit alleges. Additional delays resulted when a crane was “wrecked” while installing the upper lift terminal.

WPR claims it wound up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars renting helicopters and heavy equipment to get the job done. The lifts became operable and WPR was able to welcome skiers in 2022, while a third lift was completed later that year.

The resort’s first homes are expected to be completed this year. But the lawsuits won’t likely be resolved anytime soon.