The legal battle between an ultra-exclusive Utah ski area and 5 local residents just reached a stunning resolution

The legal battle between five Morgan County residents and Wasatch Peaks Ranch is over.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ski lifts climb the mountain above the hamlet of Peterson in Morgan County, pictured Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, where the exclusive community and private ski resort of Wasatch Peak Ranch has been under development.

The resolution to the legal saga between Wasatch Peaks Ranch and the Morgan County residents fighting to put the private ski and golf resort on the ballot was almost as swift as it was stunning.

“I’m speechless,” Second-District Judge Noel Hyde told lawyers for both sides Friday just before he approved the agreement.

After five years of legal mudslinging and contention, the two sides began talks outside of the courtroom two weeks ago, according to Cindy Carter, a critic of the development. Carter was not one of the five residents who had petitioned for a referendum on the zoning laws under which Wasatch Peaks Ranch took form. However, she was sued alongside them for $10 million by Wasatch Peaks Ranch, which claimed their activism deterred investors. That lawsuit and a resultant SLAPP lawsuit brought by Carter and the residents were both eventually dismissed.

Within the span of the past two weeks, however — including one marathon day with a mediator — the residents and Wasatch Peaks Ranch’s owners were able to put aside the past and come to an unexpected compromise.

“What we did our best to do is, if the people can’t vote on this huge zoning change, then we get them [Wasatch Peaks Ranch] to try to preserve as much mountain as they possibly can,” Carter said. “And they were pretty willing to do that.”

At the center of the agreement, Wasatch Peaks Ranch will create a conservation easement on 2,300 acres in the southern section of its 12,700-acre property. Critics of the development had asked for the easement from the beginning. Yet while Wasatch Peaks Ranch consistently said it would not develop that area, until Friday it would not commit to placing it in an easement.

Along the same lines, the resort agreed to allow public trails across portions of its property as a way to access the National Forest Service land located along the ridgeline atop its mountains. That access will only become available if a public trail is built up to the resort’s boundaries, according to Dana Farmer, a lawyer for the residents.

The agreement also stipulated that Wasatch Peaks Ranch will create a foundation to “fund projects specifically aimed at benefiting the residents of Morgan County,” according to a news release issued by Wasatch Peaks Ranch on Friday. Dana Farmer, the lawyer for the Morgan County residents, said the resort will put $4 million into the fund, which will be overseen by a member of the county commission, a representative from Wasatch Peaks Ranch and one or more people appointed by the residents involved in the lawsuit.

“This agreement was achieved after thorough discussions and community feedback with the primary objective of benefiting the larger Morgan County Community,” said Ed Schultz, managing director at Wasatch Peaks Ranch, in a news release.

In exchange, the residents agreed to drop their pursuit of a referendum on the zoning laws the Morgan County Council passed in 2019 to allow for the development of the resort. The residents had insisted they had a constitutional right to vote on the change, which converted the land from a “forestry” designation to a “special resort district.” When their petition for referendum was denied, they sued Morgan County. In September, four years after they first requested the petition, Judge Hyde ruled that the resident had a right to referendum.

The agreement also dissolves the temporary restraining order and injunction that Judge Hyde put in place in December. Those orders were issued to prevent the county from issuing permits and the resort from continuing construction under the zoning regulations that were in question.

“Everything is being dismissed. There’s a complete resolution of all the issues,” Farmer said. “As of now, they can start building again.”

The sudden resolution to the legal battle surprised even those most intertwined with it, including Judge Hyde. He was expecting to hear arguments over who should pay the residents’ legal fees when lawyers for the residents, the county and Wasatch Peaks Ranch came to him with an accord instead.

“He said he’s ‘confident it took a herculean effort on the part of everyone to come to a resolution on this,’” Farmer recalled. “He said this represented the best aspirations of the legal system, because when parties can work within the legal system but also use the system to resolve their differences, those are the things we aspire to use the system for.”