‘Respectful’ development or catering to the ‘uber-rich’? Moab in uproar as campground turns into 580 homes.

Developers for the project argue it’s a ‘thoughtful and respectful’ project that will benefit the community.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A popular canyon for recreation is slated to become a major development near downtown Moab. Kane Creek Boulevard in Moab on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

Moab • They quoted Edward Abbey, the Book of Mormon, the Bible.

“Is nothing sacred anymore?” one person, Mary Alice Sanders, asked. “Must every last corner of the desert be developed until there’s nothing left?”

Well over 100 Moab residents poured out of the Grand County Commission chambers several weeks ago to protest a forthcoming development in the Colorado River corridor 2 miles from town.

Construction crews recently started razing land along Kane Creek Boulevard, a well-used recreation artery that curves into the river corridor less than a mile from the border of Moab.

After swooping underneath the Portal, as locals call the canyon entrance, the road threads between rock face and river before the land gently widens into broad, cottonwood-speckled lowlands and bounding mesas that eventually cede to towering orange cliffs.

At stake, some say, is not just the preservation of the canyon — it’s the character of Moab, a town that’s contended with skyrocketing tourism and strained housing stock in the last decade. They say this development for the ultrawealthy will doom Moab, once a quirky desert outpost, to a future as a luxury resort town like Aspen, Colo., and Sedona, Ariz.

That’s how it feels for Kiley Miller, who’s lived near Moab for a quarter century.

“I call it the Sedona-fication of Moab,” said Miller. “Because I’ve gone to Sedona for 20 years and this is the type of growth and change I’ve seen down there … the catering towards the uber-uber-rich.”

Projected to build about 580 units and up to 72,000 square feet of commercial space, the development became newly visible when construction crews started clearing land and moving dirt on the 180-acre property in December.

Since then, community pushback has exploded. In addition to speaking out at the Grand County meeting, residents have formed an unofficial organization opposing the project complete with social media accounts, a website, and a petition that has garnered thousands of signatures.

The partners of Kane Creek Preservation and Development, LLC (KCPD), the organization running the project, argue their approach will restore an abused landscape, benefit the community and ultimately prove far less impactful than other possible plans for the land, which decades ago was granted the county’s most lenient zoning.

“There are many ways to do a project like this on a piece of property like this,” said Trent Arnold, one of KCPD’s partners. “And we believe that we have spent a lot of time and a not insignificant amount of money to understand how we might be able to do that in a thoughtful way.”

‘This remote, beautiful national park’

On a drizzly January day, the Colorado River downstream from Moab is sluggish. The river is rimmed by two roads: Potash Road on the west, which takes about 10 minutes to access from Moab, and Kane Creek Boulevard on the east, which is less than a mile from town.

Along Kane Creek, about a half-dozen construction vehicles are clearing vegetation and moving dirt on river-adjacent lowlands as towering red domes rise across the river.

The vehicles cross the road at several points to access the mesas, where they’re removing dirt that will be used to raise the lowlands out of flood danger. Currently, much of the property’s river-adjacent lands lie within a floodplain and need to be raised between 2 and 10 feet before construction can start, according to estimates from Arnold and Grand County Engineer Dan Stenta.

Slicing through the area’s relative quiet, two off-highway vehicles roar into Pritchett Canyon at the southernmost end of the property. Leading to popular hiking, biking and motorized trails, as well as popular BASE jumping spots, Kane Creek is one of Moab’s many recreation arteries. It’s also across the river from a beloved climbing area, Wall Street.

(Sophia Fisher | The Times-Independent) Members of the public attend a Grand County Commission meeting in January to protest the Kane Creek development along the Colorado River south of Moab.

The area’s simultaneous sense of proximity and solitude is what makes it so special to Laura Long, one of the local opponents to the development.

“It’s really close to town, but it feels like as soon as you turn that corner around the Portal, it feels like you’re already in this remote, beautiful national park,” Long said. “And that’s why I think people care a lot about it. Because for us as locals, we don’t have a lot of places where we can go where it’s just quick.”

The 180 acres of land most recently held about a dozen long-term renters and a campground. The campground is the reason most of the property was rezoned to allow much higher density — up to 18 units per acre — in 1992, according to Grand County documents.

Before that, Anne Walden, whose family sold the property to the developers, used to tend cattle and chickens there.

Known as the Egg Ranch, the property once held 3,000 chickens. As a child, Walden was responsible for gathering and cleaning the eggs.

“I’d like to see it stay in the old times, but things have changed,” Walden said at a Grand County Commission meeting. “I see that town has changed. It saddens me but it’s the way it is.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Walden empathizes with the development’s leaders, who said they see their project as a way to repair decades of abuse.

“It was overrun by trash and debris, and the ecosystem had been completely ruined,” said project partner Tom Gottlieb during the same meeting. “The land had been abused for decades and its natural character had been severely damaged by mining, intensive farming, grazing, dynamite-blasting, drilling and most recently by residents who were forced to live in squalor.”

Many of the property’s previous dozen or so renters had lived in somewhat unorthodox housing — trailers, caves blasted into mesa walls — that often lacked running water, heat, and proper sewage disposal. They were evicted and some were placed in new housing in 2021, when KCPD finished purchasing the land.

Calling the development “thoughtful and respectful,” Gottlieb added that he and his partners will build less than a quarter of the property’s 2,400 allowed units. That may not have been the case under another group that had seriously considered buying the property, Arnold said.

“Their business model is a much higher-density product,” he said.

On the other hand, KCPD is aiming for 586 units with “absolutely no plans” to pursue more, in Arnold’s words. That number could include up to 102 camping or glamping units that had been approved for the property before KCPD formed. Arnold said his partners have no plans to pursue more overnight accommodations; their aim is to build residential.

“We are not building Airbnb and VRBO overnight rental homes,” Arnold said. “…That is not a buyer we’re going after.”

But for Candice Gary, a third-generation Moabite, any development in the river corridor will feel like a loss. Gary, who grew up in Salt Lake City, said she spent every summer in Moab as a child and often hung out on the Kane Creek property, where her best friend lived.

“It’s like my magical place,” Gary said. “It’s the place where, throughout my life, if I’m upset or anything, I go to [one of the springs] and that’s been my place. … I’m just afraid they’re going to block it off.”

Community outcry, community outreach

Gary also held up a sign at the Grand County Commission’s Jan. 16 meeting, where maybe half of the 100-plus attendees actually fit into the commission chambers.

People spilled down an adjacent hall and into a lobby halfway across the building, where they crowded around ceiling speakers, listening to a presentation from county staff on the Kane Creek development.

The project is pursuing a county permit to construct a wastewater treatment plant. Since the county declined to provide sewer service for the development, developers are building their own facility in an artificial cave at the northern end of the property.

Arnold said the development also has all its water rights — 422 acre-feet — and plans to eventually obtain all the water from wells drilled on the property, though some could come from the Colorado River in the meantime.

Bookending the presentation was an hour and a half of comments when dozens of residents voiced their concerns about the project. Some worried that the land, much of which sits in a floodplain, won’t be able to avoid inundation even after the grade is raised. Others asked whether expanding Kane Creek Boulevard, which will be mandated at about half the development’s planned build-out, will require blasting canyon walls speckled with petroglyphs.

Arnold said his partners have no plans to conduct blasting and hope a common-sense solution can be found for the road expansion.

Still others mourned the way this development, which would exceed 10% of Moab’s current housing stock, could alter the wild feel of the canyon, which currently lacks cell service.

“I think everybody in this community ... appreciates the value of our natural landscape,” said Glen Maxson. “This area in particular is used by so many people that appreciate it … If we lose that, I think we’re losing a part of what makes this place special.”

Residents also questioned whether the development would further strain local services by adding yet more housing too expensive for local workers to live in.

(Doug McMurdo | The Times-Independent) Heavy equipment operators move dirt at the development on Kane Creek Boulevard near Moab.

Similar to many Utah communities, Moab’s housing stock has grown increasingly unaffordable over the last decade. From 2015 to 2022, Grand County’s average home values more than doubled. Over nearly the same time period, average wages increased by only 30%.

The issue is exacerbated, however, by the town’s encirclement by public lands and popularity as a tourist destination. Studies have estimated that about one-fifth of Grand County’s housing stock is used as an overnight rental, while county tax data demonstrate that one-third of residences are second homes.

Gary, who shares an 800-square-foot house with her cousin and her cousin’s husband and five animals, said she thinks only billionaires will be able to buy what’s built on Kane Creek.

“It’s not for regular rich people,” she said. “It’s for the richest of the rich. And none of us are going to be able to afford it.”

Developers have not said how much the Kane Creek houses or lots might cost — Arnold said he envisioned “all sorts of price points” — but there aren’t any plans for the units to be subsidized for the local workers in a town where the median home sales price exceeds $600,000.

At the same time, KCPD’s partners have explored several options to build workforce housing in town. One project, a proposal for more than 100 units just outside city limits, fell into limbo in July after the Grand County Commission declined to sell some of its land for the project.

“We’re going to continue to look at options,” Arnold said.

Arnold has also met with community leaders and the heads of local nonprofits, and said KCPD is open to making significant donations to support affordable housing and accessible health care in town.

“We’re going to look for direct investment where we can say, this dollar has a dollar’s worth of impact to the community,” Arnold said. “Because we want it to be meaningful, we want it to be significant, and we want it to reach its goals, which is to not just to minimize the effects of our project coming into the community but to enhance the community.”

Long also spoke at the meeting, presenting to county commissioners a petition that she said had garnered more than 7,000 signatures from people concerned about the development. By Jan. 24, the signatories had more than doubled with about 1,200 from Grand County residents.

“So many people know what the area is and are getting really fired up about it, which is really huge,” Long said.

She’s one of the leaders of an unofficial group called Kane Creek Development Watch, which is raising funds to hire an attorney and keep the momentum going, Long said.

The ultimate goal is to buy back the land and preserve it, perhaps by converting it into a park. Long said that would be a more appropriate use of land that’s smack in the middle of a recreation area.

“Moab offers this world-class recreation experience, and a world-class recreational experience doesn’t have luxury estates in it,” Long said.

Zoning ‘time bombs’ and contradictory documents

With ground already broken and planning well underway, some believe it’s too late to turn the tides on Kane Creek.

“If it were a basketball game, we’re down 20 points and there’s six minutes left to play,” said Grand County Commission Vice Chair Kevin Walker at the Jan. 16 meeting. Several other commissioners at that meeting sympathized with the development’s opponents.

Walker instead encouraged community members to look for other “ticking time bombs” around the county — parcels like Kane Creek that, while undeveloped, may be sitting on high allowable density.

“I think there are other ways to have an effect,” Walker said.

He also, however, mentioned seeming discrepancies in the 1992 rezone of the Kane Creek parcels.

Indeed, the minutes for two Grand County Planning Commission meetings and a public hearing suggest the zone change was intended for only 10 acres of the property.

But the language of the actual ordinance describes a swath of land well above 100 acres. That description also appears inconsistent with the way the land is zoned today.

Sam Cunningham, one of the county commissioners who signed off on the rezone, said she “emphatically” remembers debate always revolving around 10 acres.

“There was tons of discussion,” she said.

Cunningham isn’t sure why the discrepancies occurred but she said a development like Kane Creek “was never envisioned for this piece of property.”

Arnold said he and his partners were aware of the rezone discrepancies but declined to comment further. Grand County Attorney Stephen Stocks confirmed that his office is reviewing the development.

In the meantime, dump trucks and backhoes continue to comb the land around Kane Creek Boulevard. Arnold estimates it will take at most 18 months to finish the first round of infill. He’s also hoping to soon start building the wastewater treatment plant and other major infrastructure.

All in all, Arnold estimated it would take at least two years before homes start to appear in the canyon.

He said he and his partners are curating “everything” — views from the road and across the river, orientations of buildings, maximizing open space — to build something that’s smart, thoughtful and beautiful. Arnold added that KCPD formed in the first place because they wanted to ensure that the land was developed appropriately.

“It is still development, it is still homes that are going onto this private property, but there is certainly a right way and a wrong way to do that,” Arnold said. “That was one of our original compelling facts to step up and capitalize the project … to not let [happen] what we thought might happen to it. … We have a different prerogative.”

Editor’s note, Feb. 1, 2024: This article was updated to clarify that the property will need to be raised between 2 and 10 feet.