Deer Valley ski lift approved with nearly 30 conditions

Park City planning commission overcomes concerns about wildlife management, overcrowding.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers overlook expansion plans by Alterra Mountain Resorts, owner of Deer Valley, on Thursday, April 4, 2024. The addition of 3,700 acres of skiable terrain will include a 10-person gondola connecting East Village to Park Peak, in background, that will also feature a south-facing lodge.

Deer Valley Resort will be able to build a lift connecting the original resort to its new “Expanded Excellence” terrain mostly as planned after all.

The Park City planning commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the installation of what is temporarily being called Lift 7, albeit with nearly 30 conditions of approval. The lift, as proposed by the resort, will be a six-person bubble lift that could carry approximately 3,000 people per hour, though resort representatives said they expect it to rarely run at capacity. It will sit at the confluence of the Trump and Ontario runs above Silver Lake Lodge and service mostly beginner terrain.

At its April 24 meeting, the commission had tabled a decision on the conditional use permit (CUP) application to have more time to consider impacts to wildlife corridors and potential crowding on runs near the bottom terminal of the lift.

Public comment during initial consideration of the application was mostly in favor of the project. However, prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the commission received numerous letters either opposing the proposal or asking commissioners to act with the environment and beginner skiers in mind.

“We flinch at the prospect of skiing Ontario with hugely more people than what we navigated with our children,” wrote Robert and Katharine Davis of York, Maine. “And, if we lose the mountain birds, and the animals whose tracks we saw in the morning snow, would they ever return?”

The area where the Trump and Ontario runs join has gained numerous nicknames referencing its propensity to draw large crowds of varying expertise in a narrow area. As one letter writer, Lisa Erbin, noted, they include the “Pinball Machine” and the “Bowling Alley.”

The five people who spoke Wednesday in favor of the lift, though, expressed confidence that Deer Valley would not overcrowd the area. One of them, Keri Oaks, a longtime Deer Valley ski instructor, said she believes the new lift and terrain will be a solution to the “pinball” issues.

“I believe in guardian angels,” she said, “because I’ve seen, like the parting of the Red Sea, the runaway kid going straight down and somehow nobody gets T-boned. And it’s a constant miracle.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers at Deer Valley on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Alterra Mountain Resorts, owner of Deer Valley, plans to add 3,700 acres of skiable terrain.

“When I saw this addition, the first thing I thought of was what a huge boon it was for the beginner skiers and instructors,” she added, “to have a safe space and take away that choke point.”

Another area of concern for the commissioners was the environmental impact of the lift and its construction. The lift will be shuttled up the mountain via 10 towers, which each require cement footings. The 4.62 miles of new runs reached via the lift will weave through 13 acres of land that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has deemed “crucial” habitat for at least eight species.

Deer Valley initially relied on a wildlife management plan from 2001 to make its determination that the lift would not interfere with wildlife habitat. At the commission’s request, however, the resort hired Bio-West, Inc., a wildlife and environment consultancy firm based out of Logan, to analyze the impact of the lift and associated runs.

Garrett Lang, the resort’s head of mountain operations, said the firm assured him impacts would be negligible.

“The conclusion that was reached is that, while wildlife inhabits this area, it does not inhabit it heavily in the winter,” Lang said. “And then in the summer months they’re able to cross through unimpeded.”

Snow prevented Bio-West biologists from surveying certain areas, however. So, per the conditions placed on the project, a consultant will revisit the area after the snow melt and make further assessments. The planning commission can then withhold a building permit depending on Deer Valley’s response to the biologist’s findings.

Another condition is that the resort must wait until migratory birds such as eagles and goshawks finish nesting before clear cutting a stand of trees. In addition, Deer Valley agreed to set aside 111 acres of undeveloped land elsewhere on resort property to stand in for the trees and wildlife areas that will be disrupted by the lift.

An alternative plan that would follow the natural drainage of the basin and possibly require fewer trees to be removed was proposed by the Bransford Land Company. BLC owns the land through which the drainage runs and has leased it to Deer Valley for more than 40 years.

In an April letter to the commission, the company said it had hired an independent consultant who found that if the main return run to Lift 7 ran through the Bransford land, it would be wider and less steep than what is planned — and thus more ideal for beginners.

The run, expected to be called Sunnyside, is currently slated to be between 50 and 70 feet wide with a 20% grade. Comparable feeder runs in beginner areas at Deer Valley and at Park City Mountain Resort, the consultant found, are on average two to three times wider with grades of no more than 15%.

When pressed by commissioner Laura Suesser as to whether the submitted plan is the best one, Steve Graff, Deer Valley’s vice president of mountain operations, demurred. He said that was a tough question to answer, but it was “one of the best alignments.”

“This is the best place for it,” he said. “And it fits within our lease area and the great intersection of Trump and Ontario. It’s a great ski line, and it’s a good ski plan as it is.”

Still, said Anne Bransford, one of the three sisters who own BLC, the proposed layout is not ideal.

“We believe that this Lift 7 plan that they propose is unnecessarily conflicted and dangerous and we wish to offer our land to them by way of an easement,” said Bransford, who attended the meeting remotely. “[It’s] a safer and more compliant alternative, but it seems their new partner and landlord won’t allow that.”

At the April meeting, Todd Bennett, Deer Valley’s general manager, indicated the decision not to use the Bransford land was intertwined with a lawsuit. BLC’s lawyers counter that the lawsuit doesn’t concern Bransford land, but rather adjacent parcels.

BLC is being sued by Mayflower, LLC, which has claimed it should not have to concede to BLC a right-of-way across its property.

Mayflower is a subsidiary of Extell Development Co. of New York. Extell partnered with the Military Installation Development Authority (MIDA) — a quasi-governmental body led by state Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton — to acquire the land for and build the Mayflower Resort near the Jordanelle Reservoir. Last year, Deer Valley’s parent company, Alterra Mountain Co., entered into a decades-long lease of that land.

Dubbed “Expanded Excellence,” the terrain more than doubles Deer Valley’s acreage. Phase 1 of the buildout is set to be ready for the 2025-26 season and includes nine lifts. All but Lift 7 are located in Wasatch County and have already been approved by MIDA.

Bransford said she supports the installation of Lift 7 but wants to see it done right. She then put to bed any suggestion that she is motivated by the increased profits BLC could stand to make from its lease to Deer Valley if the new lift ran through its property. Speaking to the commission Wednesday over Zoom, she revealed that last year BLC offered to donate some of the resort land to Park City.

“On June 13, 2023, long before Lift 7 even was a thing, I delivered a letter personally to Mayor Nann Worel along with the term sheet for 18 acres we intended to donate to Park City in a conservation easement,” she said. “For reasons unknown, the gift was never accepted.”

Commissioners spent more than half an hour fine-tuning the language of the 29 conditions of approval. Two and a half hours into what would be a four-hour gathering, they approved the conditional use permit, 5-0.

Correction: June 7, 2024, 4:45 p.m • A headline on this story has been changed to show Park City responded to a land donation offer from the Bransford Land Co.