For 4 years, Morgan County residents fought to vote on Wasatch Peaks Ranch. Here’s why they abruptly dropped their case.

Since 2019, the Legislature has made petitioning for a zoning referendum increasingly burdensome.

(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.

It had been dark for hours when Cindy Carter finally climbed into her black SUV and steered it toward her home just outside of Morgan. She was exhausted. Over the course of 12 hours of mediations, she’d left everything on the long oak table dominating a sparse conference room inside an Ogden-area law firm.

Everything but a well of tears.

“I’m not a sissy and I’m not a crier, and I cried all the way home,” she said. “And it wasn’t out of happiness or sadness. It was out of relief.

“You know, conflict is hard.”

For four years, Carter and five other Morgan County residents had been ensnared in a legal battle with their county and Wasatch Peaks Ranch, an ultra-exclusive, private ski and golf community being built in the mountains above Peterson. As they sought to put to a public vote the zoning changes granted to the development by the then-County Council in 2019, they waded through lawsuits, countersuits and restraining orders. The court of public opinion landed its own punches.

Throughout the ordeal, the residents held tight to their belief that they were defending democracy. Yet they wondered if in doing that they were risking access to and views of the mountains that have long served as the backdrop of their lives.

So when Wasatch Peak’s owners, who had been forbidden by the courts to build since December, reached out last month through a mutual acquaintance with an offer to work out their differences face-to-face, the residents agreed. From those meetings grew a compromise so swift and unexpected that it stunned even some of those closest to the case.

All the participants of the negotiations signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents them from detailing the specifics of what was discussed during two meetings and a mediation with Wasatch Peak Ranch and Morgan County. In addition, Wasatch Peaks has declined comment beyond a news release issued Jan. 26. What is known, however, is that they reached a deal that ends their yearslong legal battle and preserves a large swath of the property through a conservation easement. The accord also allows all parties to move on.

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

Here’s how — according to news releases, public letters and court documents, as well as interviews conducted throughout trials on the issue — the compromise came about.

Dining room diplomacy

They came bearing cookies.

Not just any cookies. Big, thick, gooey Crumbl cookies.

But the offering did little to warm the chilly reception executives from Wasatch Peaks Ranch got from those six Morgan County residents when they first met around Carter’s dining room table in mid-January. They included the five petitioners for a referendum on the zoning changes — Brandon Peterson, Robert Bohman, Whitney Croft, Dave Pike and Shelley Paige — and Carter, who in 2020 had been sued by Wasatch Peaks Ranch for criticizing the development.

“It was like, ‘Come state your business,’” Paige recalled. “That’s what it was: ‘What do you want?’”

Their specific answer, due to the nondisclosure agreement, is unclear. In court statements and interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune through the years, however, Wasatch Peaks Ranch representatives have laid out a number of requests.

The top priority, undoubtedly, was for the residents to drop their case — which was headed for the state Supreme Court — and their pursuit of a public vote on how the land under the resort should be zoned. Accordingly, that action would void the indefinite stop-work order imposed by 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde that had frozen all construction at the resort for nearly two months.

The residents had their own set of stipulations, though. Foremost among them was that Wasatch Peaks Ranch drop its appeal and allow the zoning changes to be put to a public vote. Their secondary objective was to preserve as much as the mountain and the views from the valley as possible.

(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.

Wasatch Peaks Ranch did not fancy the idea of placing the fate of its roughly $47 million property, which already harbors five working ski lifts and a fully built golf course, on the outcome of an election.

Resort manager Ed Schultz said in a December interview with The Tribune that he felt confident that if the zoning were put to a vote, the people of Morgan County would recognize the financial benefits the resort could bring to the area. At full build-out, the development is slated to include 750 houses, town homes and condominiums as well as a village, a nine-lift ski area and a Tom Fazio-designed golf course for the exclusive use of residents and guests. Almost 90% of the residences are expected to be second or third homes that fall under a higher tax rate and could, by the resort’s estimate, generate tens of millions of dollars for the county and its schools. At the same time, the resort will have its own road, fire and utility districts not funded by the county, and has struck a wastewater deal with nearby Mountain Green that charges Wasatch Peaks residents double to triple the average tap fees.

But nothing in an election is a given, especially these days. For both parties, it was unclear whether the voters would seize on those benefits or just see the sea change the development is expected to spur in the rural, mostly ranching community.

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

If the issues had been without nuance and uncertainty, though, the effort to come to an agreement might have fallen apart right then, mixed in with the cookie crumbs on Carter’s dining room table. Instead, the groups agreed to meet a second time.

Negotiating table

Entering the negotiations, the residents felt they had the upper hand.

Their lawyers, Dana Farmer and Darin Hammond, had defeated the county and Wasatch Peaks Ranch at every turn, including once already in front of the Utah Supreme Court. They believed the odds were strong that Judge Hyde would order restitution of their attorney fees. Plus, they felt supported by the community at large.

But that veneer had cracks.

(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.

The landscape around them was changing in ways that appeared to benefit developers like Wasatch Peaks Ranch. Last year, state Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said referendum petitions like theirs are “weaponizing the process” against developers. He proposed SB 199, which exempts citizens from putting decisions made unanimously by local legislative bodies to a vote. Though that would not have applied retroactively to the Morgan County Commission’s 6-1 decision regarding zoning for Wasatch Peaks Ranch, it became one of several laws the Legislature has enacted since 2019 that make the referendum process more burdensome.

The petitioners had heard even more restrictions, including increasing the number of signatures required to put a council or commission’s decision on the ballot, were in the pipeline for this legislative session. And, Farmer said, county representatives had told his clients they would have to abide by the new laws if their petition for referendum was upheld by the courts.

“We were,” Carter said, “facing some pretty trying times with it.”

Beyond that, fighting for your rights is no party. The six residents — most of whom are farmers, ranchers and business owners — had agreed as a group early on to pour all the resources they could muster into the battle. But five years in and who knows how many more to go, some had begun dipping into their retirement accounts to pay their legal fees. The more optimistic among them were still holding out hope the court would mandate those be paid by the county or the resort, but they had no guarantees.

Then there were the personal attacks on social media and elsewhere as they became the faces of a private-public battle that captivated many both in and out of the state.

“We’ve taken tons of hits out there. You know, personal attacks and stuff,” Carter added. “And for that to go away — and they made some concessions and we did, too — was worth the time.”

It took one more meeting and roughly 12 straight hours of negotiations to reach that conclusion.

A fragile balance

No one brought cookies to the mediation.

When they met at the law offices of Smith Knowles in Ogden at 9 a.m. on Jan. 24, the six residents were resolute in their determination to keep their case alive. This was just an avenue to explore, not the actual means to an end.

“We went in thinking we weren’t going to sign [an agreement] that day,” Paige said. “It was just crazy.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, talks with Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City on Feb. 24, 2023. McKell's bill SB199 changed the referendum process, prohibiting citizens from putting to vote any decision unanimously passed by a local legislative body.

Their lawyers and a mediator met them in the room. Inside two similar rooms, their glass windows guarded by privacy blinds, gathered a contingent from Wasatch Peaks Ranch and one from Morgan County. Then, via speakerphone, the dealing began. Leaving the room only to take bathroom breaks, the residents agonized for hours over the outcome.

In the end, the residents got a deal that preserved a sizable swath of the mountain.

Wasatch Peaks Ranch will create a conservation easement on 2,300 acres of the southernmost section of the property. That area may include a stable and hunting grounds for the development’s residents but will otherwise be left untouched. The resort’s operators also agreed not to build south of the planned chairlifts, which they have consistently contended is too rugged to feasibly develop.

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 become available only if a public trail is built up to the resort’s boundaries, Farmer said. Currently, no such trails exist.

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 Jan. 26 news release issued by Wasatch Peaks Ranch. Farmer 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 three people appointed by the residents involved in the lawsuit.

An open letter posted on the Morgan County government website signed by Wasatch Peaks Ranch, the residents and the county noted, “This compromise was achieved with the primary objective of benefiting the larger Morgan County community while also bringing an end to the years long legal battle.”

Farmer said he believes his clients scored two victories in the agreement.

(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.

“WPR has accommodated a number of things that Morgan County citizens wanted, so that’s good,” he said. “The other thing I think has been made very clear is that the people’s right to conduct a referendum is serious. And it has real force and real effect. So when citizens speak to a county body about their interests and the fact that they’ll conduct a referendum if their interests aren’t being met, the governing bodies need to listen. And developers need to listen. Because the people have the constitutional right to a referendum and that gives the people a very real voice in these things. And that’s what these people have made clear.”

When the three parties brought the compromise to Hyde for approval Jan. 26, Farmer said the judge declared he was “speechless.” He also applauded what he called a “herculean effort” to reach a resolution outside of the legal system.

Yet some referendum sponsors and community members still aren’t sure they made the right decision. That self-doubt, they said, stems more from mistrust in their government than any ill will toward the resort or its future residents. They question whether their representatives will listen to them in the future if they’re not ordered to do so by the courts.

“The six of us basically did what the County Commission should have been doing all along,” Carter said. “We had to take their jobs in our hands, and that’s frustrating.”

Paige agreed. Yet she said that despite varied goals for the outcome of the case, she was proud of how the residents stuck together. Because conflict is hard.

“People really need the right to participate in government,” she said. “What do we have, I mean, once you vote somebody in, if they don’t represent you?”

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