Morgan County voters may get to decide whether or not they want Wasatch Peaks Ranch in their backyard after all.
A judge ruled Friday in favor of allowing a referendum that would let Morgan County residents decide if they approve of a rezone enacted in 2019 by the Morgan County Council. The rezone of most of the 12,700-acre Wasatch Peaks Ranch from “forestry” and “multiple-use” to a “resort special district” cleared the way for the development of the ultra-luxe private ski and golf community designed to cater to the 1% of the 1%.
If the rezone is denied, it could put the future of the resort in jeopardy. Dana Farmer, the lawyer for the group that filed a petition for the referendum, said Utah’s state constitution prohibits Wasatch Peaks Ranch from undertaking any developments that are in violation of the original zoning designations while the referendum is in play.
“That’s what we were hoping for. It’s what we expected,” Farmer said of the ruling. “We’re very pleased after three long years of litigation to get this decision.”
In his written decision, Second District Judge Noel Hyde said that because the county council’s decision would impact a specific site and result in a new zoning classification, it could be put to a referendum. The judge also determined the five Morgan County residents who filed the petition in 2019 had met all deadlines and requirements on their application despite what he called “aggressive” efforts by Wasatch Peaks Ranch representatives to ensure that wasn’t the case.
“WPR engaged in a deliberate attempt to hinder the timely and complete filing of the [a]pplication” for a referendum, Hyde wrote. “WPR was acutely aware of the timeliness of the [a]pplication and aggressively attempted to create a record that the filing occurred” after the deadline.
Hyde also chastised Wasatch Peaks Ranch for suing the county clerk, which the judge said was done “with the intent to intimidate the clerk to reject the [a]pplication.”
Mark Gaylord, the lead attorney representing Wasatch Peaks Ranch, said he disagrees with Hyde’s conclusion.
“If you look at the record itself, it speaks for itself,” Gaylord said, “and it speaks volumes.”
The county council voted 6-1 to approve the rezone on Oct. 30, 2019. Since then, the council has been restructured as a five-member commission.
Shortly after the petition for referendum was filed in November 2019, the county clerk rejected it on procedural grounds, which triggered the lawsuit in 2nd District Court. That lawsuit then set off two more lawsuits: Wasatch Peaks Ranch filed a defamation suit against the residents and they, in turn, filed a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). Both suits have been dismissed.
While the five Morgan County residents considered the approval of the referendum petition a win, their fight is far from over. Wasatch Peaks Ranch filed an appeal Friday afternoon within hours of receiving Hyde’s decision, Gaylord said, and the case will soon be sent to the Utah Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also considered the case in 2021 but remanded it back to district court.
“We disagree” with Friday’s ruling, Gaylord said, “and that’s evidenced by the notice of appeal.”
If a referendum ultimately is allowed, the Morgan County residents will have to gather about a thousand signatures to get it on the ballot. However, Farmer told The Tribune prior to the decision that the timeline would be too tight to get it on this November’s ballot even without the resort filing for appeal.
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