Ultra-exclusive Wasatch Peaks Ranch won’t stay quiet any longer

Lack of information has allowed critics of ski and golf club for “the 1% of the 1%” to “fill in the blanks with misstatements and half-truths” as it pushes against public referendum, stop-work order

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A ski lift at the exclusive and private ski and golf resort of Wasatch Peaks Ranch is pictured above the hamlet of Peterson in Morgan County on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. A judge recently issued a preliminary injunction forcing the luxury resort to halt sales and construction.

An excavator on cat tracks led a parade of yellow construction vehicles lumbering down the smooth blacktop that connects the private Wasatch Peaks Ranch to the rest of civilization. In their slow march, they passed the skeletons of grandiose new homes and a scattering of trailers and trucks where the village for the ultra-luxe ski and golf resort is planned. Next to those, a blanket of untouched snow covered the recently completed, not-yet-played 18-hole golf course designed by Tom Fazio.

Ed Schultz, the managing director of Wasatch Peaks Ranch, winced as he drove his black truck around the parade.

“It hurts,” Shultz said, “seeing the equipment leave.”

A week earlier, a 2nd District judge issued a preliminary injunction against the resort, effectively stopping all construction and development in its tracks. So, except for the construction of roof coverings to preserve the rough-framed homes and what Schultz described as a few projects that would adversely affect the environment if stalled, what was once a bustling development site has fallen quiet.

That’s a problem for the resort. Schultz realizes that Wasatch Peaks Ranch’s own silence, even while engaged in a yearslong legal battle that could ultimately determine its survival, left a communication void.

“Because of the lack of information out there, it’s allowed people to fill in the blanks,” Schultz said. “And the loudest voices have filled in the blanks with misstatements and half-truths and even more.”

Mystery owners, mystery buyers

Wasatch Peaks Ranch is so under wraps that its website offered little information other than a picture of one of its snow-covered peaks, a one-sentence description and forms for general and membership inquiries. The latter of which includes the question: How did you hear about us? It harkens to the resort’s stringent vetting process, including at least two sponsors per member.

Schultz has repeatedly declined to disclose the price paid for the 12,700 acres of private land the owners of Wasatch Peaks Ranch purchased in 2018 from Dick Bass, Peter Hicks and the Holding family — who under the Sinclair Real Estate Company own nearby Snowbasin Resort and the Little America and Grand America hotels. The most he will offer is that the owners paid all cash for the property, which was offered at $47 million.

As to who those owners are, great lengths have been taken to shroud their identities. Only Lessing Stern, the son of Deer Valley Resort founder Edgar Stern, has been publicly linked to the resort.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Managing director Ed Schultz of Wasatch Peaks Ranch, talks about development plans for the exclusive and private ski and golf resort in the Morgan Valley on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

That level of privacy protection also extends to the identity of members of a resort built, one executive said in a 2019 podcast, for the wealthiest “1% of 1%.” Membership dues are proprietary, a Wasatch Peaks Ranch spokesperson said, but a 2021 SEC document noted the minimum investment at that time was $500,000. Additionally, Schultz noted, all members must purchase a home at the ranch. But money, he said, is not enough to gain entry into what developers envision becoming the next Yellowstone Club, only maybe even more exclusive. Strong family values are imperative, he said, as is respect for nature.

“You can drive in with a semi-truck full of hundreds and you’re not going to buy a piece of real estate,” Schultz said. “You have to be vetted, sponsored, co-sponsored, and only after you’re invited to join are you even presented real estate.”

Wasatch Peaks Ranch currently has 115 members. Among those rumored to have made the cut are world-famous athletes and national politicians.

Schultz waved off those rumors, saying the roster isn’t that star-studded.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An easement through private property connects the hamlet of Peterson in the Morgan Valley with the exclusive private luxury ski and golf resort of Wasatch Peaks Ranch, pictured Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

“There’s no celebrities,” he said. “We’re not chasing celebrities. If you travel with a big entourage again, that’s not the family value focus [we’re looking for.]”

Yet the rumors about residents are all many of Morgan County’s 12,000 residents know about Wasatch Peaks Ranch. At the salons and shops, they talk about what’s happening at the top of that perfectly paved blacktop beyond a pair of “No Trespassing” signs. But they have little to draw from other than news reports about court cases and hearsay. And that hasn’t worked in the development’s favor.

Four years of lawsuits

The indefinite stop-work order issued by Judge Noel Hyde in early December is connected to a larger legal and political battle. In 2019, five Morgan County residents petitioned to hold a referendum on zoning laws passed by the County Council that converted Wasatch Peaks Ranch’s land from “forestry” and “multiple use” zones to the broader “resort special district.”

When that petition was denied on technical merits, the residents sued. Over the ensuing four years, lawsuits have flown back and forth among the residents, the county and Wasatch Peaks Ranch. At one point, Wasatch Peaks Ranch sued the five residents and another critic for $10 million for tortious interference. Those six met that action with a SLAPP countersuit. Both lawsuits were eventually dismissed.

During the interim, the county continued to approve development permits and the resort kept building. Wasatch Peaks Ranch now has plans for 750 houses, condos and townhomes, none of which is complete. Additionally, it is in the midst of constructing a village that will have, Schultz said, a tavern, a grocery and a skier services building and will be connected to the upper mountain by a gondola. It also has installed a golf course and four lifts to access its mostly expert ski and snowboard terrain.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renderings illustrate development plans for the private luxury ski and golf resort of Wasatch Peaks Ranch in the Morgan valley on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

In September, however, Judge Hyde ruled the residents have a right to referendum. And in issuing the temporary injunction on Dec. 8, he ruled that, until voters decide otherwise, the original zoning laws are and have been in place. In other words, everything that Wasatch Peaks Ranch has built could be undone.

Wasatch Peaks Ranch and the county have appealed Hyde’s decisions on both the referendum and the temporary injunction to the Utah Supreme Court. Trial dates have not been set.

In court, Wasatch Peaks Ranch’s lawyer argued the resort would stand to lose $600 million in 2024 due to the injunction. Schultz said while frustrating, Wasatch Peaks Ranch’s owners — because they aren’t carrying a bank loan — and members — most of whom will be building second or third homes at the resort — can financially withstand a long pause in construction.

What’s of greater concern, whether or not the zoning is put to a vote, he said, is the hit the resort is taking in the court of public opinion.

“It’s a Morgan decision that impacts Morgan,” he said. “But we failed to get the message to the broader audience in Morgan.”

Winning over the people

Schultz said he “sat in more kitchens and pickup truck tailgates” in 2018, the year before Wasatch Peaks Ranch requested the zoning change, in an effort to inform the public about the project. The resort also held an open house at the Bar W Lodge in Peterson, which now serves as the resort’s temporary headquarters, and held 10 public meetings. At that time, Schultz said, the development enjoyed strong community support. Once the legal mudslinging began, though, Wasatch Peaks Ranch mostly went quiet. So did what Schultz believes to be a still hearty contingent of project supporters.

One of those supporters, Shawn Beckstrom, said he believes the silence created an echo chamber for the negative narratives around the resort.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wasatch Peaks Ranch in Morgan valley is pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, as snow covers open areas that make up part of the 18-hole Tom Fazio golf course. The private luxury ski and golf resort above the hamlet of Peterson was recently issues a preliminary injunction forcing a halt to sales and construction.

“As a few of the people keep getting louder on social media in the negative toward Wasatch Peaks, we now have to play a little bit of offense,” said Beckstrom, who has lived in the Mountain Green area for more than two decades. “And if we want Wasatch Peaks to stay, I think it’s our duty to speak up and not be silent anymore.”

Beckstrom said he has no business dealings or interest in Wasatch Peaks Ranch other than as a Morgan County resident and taxpayer. He said what appeals to him about the project is the promise of an infusion of millions of dollars in taxes with little negative impact on roads, schools and other public services.

Before Wasatch Peaks Ranch took ownership, the 12,700-acre property produced $3,600 a year in property taxes, Schultz said. This year, before any structures are complete, the bill was $2.2 million, and Schultz said that was expected to go up to $4.5 million next year after a total of 100 homesites are platted.

In addition, the resort has used taxes on its residents to create its own road, fire and utility districts. Its wastewater will be handled by the nearby Mountain Green Sewer District at double to triple the tap and usage rates of residents within the district.

But Schultz said operators don’t want Wasatch Peaks residents to be just the rich people on the hill. They want them to be good neighbors and support the community in ways not tied to taxes. That’s why, he said, resort operators have given money to 4H youth who sold their animals at the fair and have taken local high school soccer teams to Real Salt Lake games.

They also try to employ local businesses as much as possible in sourcing their food and labor, he said. About 40 Morgan County residents are among Wasatch Peaks’ 190 employees. In addition, the resort has created a nonprofit to support construction workers — many of whom are employed by local contractors — during the work stoppage.

To sweep away some of the secrecy around the resort, Schultz began giving public tours of Wasatch Peaks Ranch on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He estimates about 500 Morgan County residents took one of those tours in October or November.

“This is the biggest thing to come to Morgan in years,” Schultz said. “And part of that is acknowledging we represent a large amount of change.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renderings illustrate development plans for the private luxury ski and golf resort of Wasatch Peaks Ranch in the Morgan valley on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

Ronnie Whitear’s farm is surrounded by Wasatch Peaks Ranch on all sides, and the road to the resort is an easement through his property. Because of that easement, he’s been privy to many prospective buyers’ ideas about what they would do with the property. He said the best option he’s seen is the proposal by Wasatch Peaks Ranch.

“I’ve seen everything from the year 2000 to the present,” said Whitear, who owns the Bar W Lodge and whose son owns the Hinds Country Store gas station that has become the central waypoint for workers and visitors going to and from the resort. “And I’m just gonna say this: I’m impacted the heaviest, but from the civic standpoint and from a community standpoint and from a tax standpoint, with Wasatch Peaks we’re getting the best that we could have.”

Wasatch Peaks’ efforts have also caught the attention of the community at large. While some people are warmed by the generosity, especially the gestures that support the area’s youth and businesses, others are suspicious. One resident who declined to be named said over the years she has grown to dislike what she deemed resort operators’ habit of “asking for forgiveness rather than permission.” Some residents fear the resort will eventually want to expand south beyond its approved development boundaries, creating a mini-Park City. Schultz said the terrain is too steep to make that financially attractive.

‘We want them to be able to vote’

For their part, the five residents who have spent the last four years and thousands of dollars entangled in the legal battle with Wasatch Peaks Ranch and the county say they aren’t fighting the resort. They say they’re fighting for a voice.

“The whole thing is we want the county to be able to vote on it,” Shelley Paige, who petitioned for the referendum, told The Tribune in October. “We’re not telling them how to vote. We want them to be able to vote.”

Wasatch Peaks Ranch could allow that to happen if it dropped its appeal of the referendum to the state Supreme Court. Doing so would allow the residents to collect the roughly 1,000 signatures they need to put the zoning to a vote no later than next November. If they can’t collect enough signatures, the zoning put in place by a 6-1 vote of the County Council in 2019 would become law. That, in turn, could potentially accelerate the timeline for restarting construction at the resort.

(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.

Yet Schultz said the resort doesn’t plan to take that tack. Wasatch Peaks Ranch did its due diligence, he said. Even though he believes it has enough voter support to win, it shouldn’t have to take that risk.

“The citizens voted through their representatives,” he said. “The citizens had 10 opportunities to voice their opinion, and changes and modifications happened up until the night before the [County Council’s] vote to try to accommodate those requests. [It] wasn’t perfect, but that 6-1 vote was telling. It was telling about the support and the education that we had provided to a portion of the community.”

And if Wasatch Peaks Ranch’s future is put into the people’s hands? Schultz said he thinks the resort has the vote. Its supporters just need to find their voice.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.