Utah lands trust joins effort to downsize small town near Bears Ears

Will past opposition to a solar farm shrivel Bluff’s boundaries?

(Josh Ewing) A petroglyph in Bluff in the southeastern corner of Utah. A state agency is looking to remove more than 7,000 acres of its lands from the town, mostly within a sandstone mesa known as Bluff Bench.

Utah Trust Lands Administration, or TLA, has joined with a prominent real estate attorney in an effort to shrink the newly formed town of Bluff by nearly half.

The move came as a surprise to the town’s officials and 260 residents. TLA (formally known as the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA) leases, mines and sells its lands to generate money for Utah schools, and never raised any objection to its inclusion in Bluff’s boundaries when the town incorporated in 2018. The agency hasn’t presented any formal development plans that the Town Council rejected.

Bluff did formally oppose a large solar farm on TLA land a few years ago, but the project is still in the works. And TLA ultimately has the final say on what happens on its lands anyway, regardless of what the town requests, since state law exempts it from local planning and zoning ordinances.

All said, the state agency wants to remove more than 7,000 acres of its lands from Bluff, mostly within a sandstone mesa known as Bluff Bench on the northeast part of town. The proposition could cut out hundreds of more acres held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and private landowners as well.

“Given everything I’ve heard about SITLA really taking the public position they want to work with communities,” said Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen, “I was surprised they didn’t reach out and try to work with us first before taking a step like this.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Some residents have speculated the move is retaliation for Bluff’s support of the 1.4 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, to which it proudly declares itself a gateway.

“As a Bluff resident and someone who worked for the last decade on Bears Ears,” said Josh Ewing, who ran the former nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa, “it’s a tough pill to swallow to see our town being exclusively targeted the way it is.”

During a town hall meeting, other residents worried TLA wants to leave the door open to oil and gas mining on Bluff Bench, which poses a risk to an aquifer directly below serving both the town and hundreds of families living on the nearby Navajo Nation Reservation. And they wonder what other big development plans the state wants to bring to their tiny town.

“They have statutory mandates to develop their lands for the benefit of the school trust fund, and the town certainly recognizes that,” said Bluff attorney Christopher McAnany. “... [But] Bluff was incorporated, in large measure, because the people there wanted to have some say about the things going on around them. It’s unfortunate that ... the response from SITLA here is to say, ‘No, we don’t want to work with you. We want out.’”

Representatives with TLA declined an interview request, instead responding to a list of emailed questions.

“We strive to work collaboratively with officials who have Trust Lands within their boundaries and have built many strong relationships over the past several decades,” the agency wrote. “We have repeatedly contacted Bluff officials but have not received positive responses.”

TLA confirmed it has not tried to disconnect from a municipality before.

‘It was nowhere on my radar’

The current effort to downsize Bluff began in July 2022, when lawyer Bruce Baird informed the town his client wanted to disconnect a square mile of privately held land, called the Acton property, on Bluff Bench.

By then, Bluff officials had become used to land battles with Baird. He helped another client remove nearly 400 acres on Comb Ridge, just months after the town officially formed. The Town Council was brand new. They barely had a budget or staff, and few resources to stand up to Baird, an attorney infamous for entangling municipalities in expensive legal disputes.

“If we’d litigated this, even if we won, we’d lose,” Leppanen told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2021. “... He’s very successful in what he does.”

With the petition from last summer, however, the Town Council felt more established and prepared to take on the attorney. They denied his client’s application on Jan. 10 of this year, citing the overwhelming sentiment among residents to not lose another chunk of their town. The Council also said the proposal created an island of unincorporated land, impairing the town and San Juan County’s ability to provide services — a reasonable rationale according to state code and previous court cases.

“I told the Council, ‘We are not done with Bruce Baird on this,’” Leppanen said. “He’s up to something.”

A few weeks later, on Jan. 30, Baird reached out to TLA about disconnecting some of its adjoining state lands, which would solve his client’s island problem, emails published by the Canyon Echo Journal show.

After back-and-forth email and phone calls, Baird formally asked TLA to join his effort on Feb. 7.

Portion of an email sent by attorney Bruce Baird to SITLA staff on Feb. 7, 2023.

“I hereby request that SITLA consider joining us in filing a new petition to disconnect,” Baird wrote. “... I am sure that SITLA has long experience, as do I, of having properties subject to the tender mercies of [Bluff] and the screaming activists therein.”

TLA’s staff got to work drafting maps with Baird and strategizing boundaries that would not create islands or peninsulas of unincorporated land, giving the town few grounds to deny the disconnect.

By spring, TLA attorney Keli Beard signaled a developer looking to build a large solar farm on Bluff Bench wanted to hurry the plan along. The Town Council had previously opposed the 1,000-acre project on TLA Lands in a 2019 resolution, as it fell within the older, larger boundaries of Bears Ears and a lawsuit was pending.

“Our solar lessee is very interested in pushing the disconnection through as quickly as possible,” Beard wrote Baird on April 21.

On May 4, Baird submitted his new disconnect request to Bluff officials. It encompassed an astounding 9,514 acres, about 40% of the existing town’s area.

If Bluff denies the petition, Baird wrote, his client will take it to district court.

“Bluff will lose that suit,” he said in the request, “and the Disconnection Properties will be disconnected, but only after Bluff has wasted a fortune on attorney’s fees.”

The new petition includes Baird’s originally requested 640-acre Acton property, along with 7,370 acres of TLA lands and 1,338 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. It also includes 166 acres part of the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission, a pillar of the Bluff community and adjoining Navajo Nation Reservation.

“It was nowhere on my radar,” Leppanen said, “that he’d team up with SITLA and come at us with that.”

It appears the mission wasn’t consulted in the disconnect plans either. TLA and Baird included it to avoid creating a peninsula, according to their emails.

“We weren’t even directly informed,” said Rev. Leon Sampson of the Episcopal Church In Navajoland. “It was a member of the community of Bluff that told us something was happening.”

St. Christopher’s has made clear it does not want to get split from the town.

“We’re waiting, leaving it up to the town of Bluff,” Sampson said. “We’re very much in support of keeping [our] connection with that community.”

Bluff residents also raised eyebrows this summer when TLA released a map of lands it plans to exchange with the federal government in and around the Bears Ears National Monument.

It proposes swapping out several parcels it owns near and within Bluff as part of HR3049, the “Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration Exchange Act of 2023,” sponsored by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah. But maps show TLA would keep some of its parcels within both Bluff and the disconnect area, including land for the solar farm on Bluff Bench.

While the town wanted little development on Bluff Bench to protect its water supply and the original boundaries of Bears Ears, turning over other state land to the federal government means there’s less room for Bluff to grow and build its tax base.

“It’s puzzling,” said McAnany, the town attorney. “I’m not sure how that’s going to affect this disconnection thing, except that it means there’s even less land that could be developed within the town. It means every acre of the remaining land becomes more important.”

Why TLA wants out of Bluff

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bears Ears buttes in 2021. Some residents have speculated the move is retaliation for Bluff’s support of the 1.4 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.

President Joe Biden restored Bears Ears National Monument’s original footprint shortly after taking office in 2021, even as TLA sold four oil and gas leases within those boundaries weeks before his election. Utah has appealed a lawsuit, seeking to decrease the monument’s size once again.

TLA said it has no position on Bears Ears. Its primary interest is creating revenue for public schools.

The agency wrote in its emailed responses that it had asked Bluff for a more “collaborative approach” as the town zoned TLA property on Bluff Bench.

At a community hearing on the disconnect held Aug. 15, TLA assistant managing director Bryan Torgerson said the agency took issue with Bluff designating state lands as open space.

“We have a mission to develop these lands,” Toregerson said. “... We don’t really see a great path forward in the town of Bluff.”

Reverting back to unincorporated San Juan County would allow for conditional use, like a solar farm, he said. Toregerson also called out Bluff’s lobbying for Bears Ears, which he said made “evident” the town wanted to include Bluff Bench in the national monument.

“The town of Bluff has made it very clear they don’t want to see the Bluff Bench developed,” Toregerson said.

TLA’s solar farm lessee in Bluff also needs more certainty, Beard said at the meeting.

“He still has very low confidence that coming to you for a zoning change would be an effective strategy to help his project move forward,” Beard said, although she acknowledged TLA has the authority to move ahead with the project anyway, regardless of Bluff’s zoning. “That’s what we plan to do, if we can’t disconnect.”

Bluff officials said in interviews they didn’t realize the solar farm was such a sticking point for TLA. They immediately reached out to the agency in search of a solution when they realized it wanted to leave town.

“While [TLA] appreciates the current willingness of Bluff officials to work with us,” the agency wrote in its emailed responses, “that willingness only took place after the disconnection petition was filed.”

The agency said it “may” allow mining above the town in the future, although the solar farm would preclude those activities for the duration of its lease.

“Disconnection also does not impact on our ability to develop the mineral estate,” TLA wrote.

Baird said his clients on the Acton property have no plans to develop their empty, square-mile parcel. They simply don’t want the town to tell them what they can do with their land, he said.

“It’s not my client’s fault,” Baird said at the Aug. 15 hearing, “nor is it SITLA’s fault, that this town decided to incorporate a massive set of properties.”

Bluff’s current boundaries encompass about 23,700 acres. That’s bigger than West Valley City, Baird pointed out, which has a population of about 135,000.

Town officials say the large size of Bluff was intentional — residents want to have a say in their future growth.

“It’s a problem that’s somewhat unique to Utah,” said McAnany, the Bluff attorney, “in that you have local communities surrounded by state and federal lands, over which they have very little control. It’s a challenge for a local government to do anything in that setting.”

In an interview, Baird mostly acknowledged Bluff’s decorum in the petition process, noting last month’s hearing hardly brought out the “screaming activists” he referenced in the email kicking off his partnership with TLA.

But Baird maintained the town’s opposition to disconnection is unreasonable, calling residents “NIMBYs,” short for “not in my backyard,” and “BANANAs,” short for “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”

“The town has no money; it can never provide any meaningful services,” Baird said. “Denying development — that’s the only service they will ever be able to provide.”

The Town Council will likely make a decision on the latest disconnect request by the end of September, Leppanen said.

“We’re taking our time, building some trust and getting us back on track,” the mayor said. “That is my ultimate goal, to not be at odds with SITLA.”