Family won’t donate land after Utah Lake island plan would have put road through property

Walkara Way remains in limbo as property owner tries to get to the bottom of his city’s involvement in the proposal to create artificial islands.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jake Holdaway has no invasive phragmites in his field, compared to his neighbors' land on the other side of the fence, in Vineyard, near Utah Lake, on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

Vineyard • The plan to dredge Utah Lake and create artificial islands may be squashed, but details about schemes and secret deals around the project continue to surface.

According to copies of two letters recently obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, the director of the Utah Lake Commission secretly pledged millions of dollars to the project that he had no control over — and without his board’s knowledge — to help the private company Lake Restoration Solutions (LRS) obtain a federal loan of nearly $1 billion. A separate letter shows Vineyard’s mayor pledged millions, too, to the surprise of some residents. And recent court proceedings revealed the lobbyist who was supposed to be representing Vineyard’s interests not only worked for LRS but also had an ownership stake in the company.

The perceived conflicts and backroom deals have members of at least one family so fed up that they’re pulling out of a project that would have created a public trail and open space park connecting the Provo River and Jordan River parkways.

“LRS was like a bombshell on our small community,” said Jake Holdaway, a Vineyard resident and sixth-generation property owner on the shores of Utah Lake.

He called on Mayor Julie Fullmer to step down at a City Council meeting Wednesday night after learning members were about to appoint Eric Ellis, the Utah Lake director who made secret financial commitments, as their new city manager. The Tribune reported earlier that day that Ellis had made inaccurate representations to the Environmental Protection Agency by pledging money to the LRS project he had no control over, to the alarm of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“I do get emotional just thinking about the burden [this] has been on my family,” Holdaway said at the meeting. “I’m just asking you to do the right thing, Mayor. ... That’s what it will take [for] our city to come together.”

Holdaway is also running for City Council this November, largely because he’s upset over how Vineyard became so entwined in the LRS controversy. LRS declared bankruptcy earlier this year, but the fallout of its influence lingers.

“There needs to be a public flogging, a public ‘what happened?’” Holdaway told The Tribune. “You just can’t go bankrupt and say, ‘Oh, no harm, no foul.’

“There’s this machine that now we know about,” he added, “that exists to circumvent the entire government process.”

A plan for a path forward at Utah Lake

Utah Lake has myriad issues with water quality, algal blooms and invasive carp. Its shoreline wetlands also got gobbled up by invasive, water-guzzling plants called phragmites over the past few decades, which choke out wildlife habitat and pose a wildfire threat as they dry out through the summer.

In 2018, as conversations about how to restore Utah Lake intensified, Holdaway had an idea. Shoreline landowners like him could use cows to munch down the phragmites and restore wetland habitat, similar to a grazing program used by state resource managers at the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area on the Great Salt Lake. Then the property holders could donate an easement for a trail and beach access through the resulting open space, in exchange for the state building fences so cattle don’t roam into Vineyard’s rapidly growing lakeshore subdivisions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jake Holdaway's property near Utah Lake, on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

“My thought was, why not come together and be partners with the state?” Holdaway said. “Why don’t we donate public access, preserve it for the next generation, do the good thing?”

Holdaway called his concept “Walkara Way,” named for the Ute chief who led the Timpanogos people when Holdaway’s ancestors first settled along Utah Lake along with other Mormon pioneers. It would preserve around 1,000 acres of open space, with a pathway from Provo to Vineyard to the Jordan River.

The Utah Lake Commission, now the Utah Lake Authority, became one of Walkara Way’s biggest partners and supporters. Ellis, then the commission’s executive director, helped set up meetings and introduced Holdaway to city leaders.

In summer 2020, Ellis also arranged a meeting between Holdaway and LRS since one of the dredging company’s assertions was that its islands project would improve Utah Lake wetlands. LRS representatives seemed misinformed on the complexity of a lakeshore that’s owned by a hundred-plus private property holders, Holdaway said, so he didn’t take much from the discussion.

“That’s why,” he said, “the LRS idea was so stupid.”

He moved forward in his partnership with Ellis and the Utah Lake Commission, however, working to get other landowners on board. They developed a pilot project on 55 acres owned by Holdaway’s father. It showed cows could, indeed, keep the phragmites at bay and open habitat to wildlife on Utah Lake, Ellis reported to state agencies.

“We’re meeting monthly, going through almost every square foot of where are we going to put a fence? Where are we going to allow an easement?” Holdaway said. “We’re talking about conservation and hunting and the protection of ducks and geese, all the things wildlife need.”

One of the biggest Walkara Way wins for Ellis and Holdaway was a $4.4 million appropriation from Utah lawmakers during the 2021 session.

(Bethany Baker | Salt Lake Tribune) A man jogs along the Utah Lake Shore Trail in Vineyard on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023.

LRS’ disruptive development plans surface

Then, in January 2022, Holdaway obtained a copy of a presentation LRS showed investors the summer before. The contents shocked him.

It included a letter from the then-Governor’s Office of Economic Development from October 2020 supporting LRS’ attempt to get a massive loan from the EPA. It contained Fullmer’s letter, dated Sept. 30, 2020, committing $5 million from Vineyard.

“Five million is a lot for Vineyard City,” Holdaway said. “We don’t have a fire department. We don’t have a rec center. We don’t have a library.”

The presentation also included a concept map of the islands and subdivisions LRS would create after dredging a billion cubic yards of Utah Lake sediment. And one of the arteries that would serve the new city ran right by Holdaway’s home and through his Walkara Way wetland property.

“So I’m going to donate that land and you’re going to then turn it over for a highway,” he said. “And Eric Ellis says nothing to me ... Julie Fullmer says nothing to me.”

Holdaway said he told them both he refused to move forward until he understood the extent of their involvement.

Holdaway wasn’t the only Utah County resident worried about the pair’s interactions with LRS.

Lobbyists, paper trails and dead ends

A records request sent by Conserve Utah Valley, and shared with The Tribune, revealed how the governor’s office support letter came to be.

Jeff Hartley, a lobbyist for LRS, sent an email on Sept. 30, 2020. In the message, Hartley said LRS gave the EPA a tour of Utah Lake, that the agency wanted LRS to expedite its application for a federal loan and that the company needed a letter of support in 72 hours. Emails show the governor’s staff finalized the support letter by the morning of Oct. 2.

Hartley also works as Vineyard’s lobbyist. And Fullmer provided her letter of support for LRS’ EPA loan on the same day Hartley emailed the governor’s staff asking for expedited help. Records requests, including one filed by The Tribune, did not produce any documents indicating who asked Fullmer for her letter or how it was drafted. The mayor did not say who requested her letter when asked by The Tribune.

Shawn Herring, a former candidate for mayor, filed a records request Jan. 31, 2022, in an effort to get those answers. He was not successful.

“This immaculately conceived letter came out of absolutely nowhere,” Herring said in an interview. “Who brought this forward to the city?”

He said he worried about Hartley’s lobbying for both LRS and Vineyard. During bankruptcy hearings last month, the company’s former CEO, Ryan Benson, revealed Hartley had an ownership stake in LRS.

“Was our lobbyist working against us, in a way?” Herring asked.

LRS sued Brigham Young University professor Ben Abbott in 2022, accusing him of defamation after he raised questions and concerns about the project. While a judge tossed out that suit earlier this year, Abbott’s anti-SLAPP countersuit against the company continued. Discovery in the case revealed a text message from Hartley to Benson sent the same day Herring filed his records request with Vineyard.

Hartley asked Benson whether his communications between the mayor and LRS are protected in the message.

“It shows they were in panic mode,” Herring said, “to show what they could classify and cover-up.”

In an interview, Hartley denied there was any conflict of interest in his representation of LRS and Vineyard. He said he had not negotiated his ownership share with LRS when he began his lobbying contract with the city in 2018.

“There was nothing to disclose,” Hartley said. “... If compensation changes for a client that I have, I don’t have to tell all of my clients my compensation changed.”

He said he never influenced Vineyard officials on behalf of LRS and was not part of the conversations that led to Fullmer’s letter of support.

The mayor did not provide an interview for this story but responded to a list of emailed questions.

She said she did not know LRS would use her letter in investor presentations. She said Hartley did not request the letter, although she did not say who did. She was not aware of any conflicts or concerns about Hartley’s representation of Vineyard. Although there are no meeting minutes showing the City Council authorized her $5 million pledge, the mayor said it came from the city’s existing Redevelopment Agency funds dedicated to cleaning up Utah Lake.

“We joined the EPA in believing that the project could potentially support many of our existing goals for the shoreline and ecosystem of Utah Lake,” she wrote in explaining why she wrote the letter.

EPA never issued any loans to LRS before the company dissolved in June.

Vineyard City Council member Cristy Welsh, who was on the council when Fullmer sent her support letter in 2020, would not say whether she knew about the letter at the time. But she said she “absolutely” did not have a problem with it and supported the mayor.

“Those types of letters are written by mayors all the time,” Welsh said.

“Misconstruing that letter to the point where we’re still talking about it years later,” Welsh added, “is a waste of everyone’s time.”

The City Council voted to take a neutral position on the LRS project in February 2022. Fullmer sent LRS a note clarifying that position months later, in October.

Will feelings about the sunk island project fade?

For now, it appears Walkara Way remains in limbo.

Holdaway said he was particularly gutted to learn this month Ellis had also sent letters of support for LRS’ EPA loan, which committed investment in Walkara Way to the company’s plan. Ellis sent them in September 2020 and May 2021, while he was actively working with Holdaway as a partner on the project.

“It made me feel sick,” Holdaway said about discovering the letters. “I was sick to my stomach. I literally couldn’t breathe.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In an interview before he stepped down from the Utah Lake Authority to take the Vineyard City manager job this week, Ellis said Walkara Way was still plugging along, including on the Holdaway property, because the federal government held a claim to land on the Utah Lake shore.

Because Utah Lake was converted into a reservoir more than 100 years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has a title claim on the lake’s shoreline. This is where Ellis said the Walkara Way trail will run.

“Hopefully, the [Holdaway] family will be just as excited about it moving forward as they were in the past,” Ellis said. “And that the feelings about the island project can fade as [it] is no longer moving forward.”

In an email, the Bureau of Reclamation said it was working to donate any claim it has on the Holdaway’s property to the state. Ben Stireman with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said the state isn’t going to pursue a dust-up with landowners along Utah Lake.

“The division is not interested in owning the property or inheriting legal issues,” Stireman said. “But we are interested in finding a path forward.”