Utah would like to sell surplus land scattered around the state. Trouble is, it isn’t sure where all of it is exactly. And it hasn’t had much success in getting the public to take a look at what may be hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of land.
These parcels were initially purchased for highway projects, often through condemnation. But not all of it was used. So, it has sat vacant, growing weeds, for perhaps decades.
The state realized it had the equivalent of valuable golden nuggets scattered along its highways — so the Legislature last year approved $500,000 to start to inventory it, find any water rights, develop legal descriptions and auction it off.
Shane Marshall, deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation, reported Tuesday that in the first year UDOT raised $19.3 million by selling 81 parcels.
“So out of that $500,000 investment, we put $19 million back into the fund” for future highway projects, he told a legislative committee Tuesday.
He estimated the state is still three to five years away from identifying all the surplus property it owns.
“It is a very labor-intensive process,” he said. The state is focusing its efforts along urban highway corridors where the values are likely the highest.
But even when land has been identified and offered at auction, it hasn’t always been able to find buyers.
“In the last auction, we had maybe $12 million worth of parcels” where the state didn’t attract buyers willing to meet the minimum bid price, Marshall said.
An example of unsold land was a 0.8-acre parcel in a residential area at 13015 S. Redwood Road (a state highway) in Riverton, records show. UDOT sought a minimum bid of $173,000 for it. Three of nine somewhat similar parcels sold at the last auction.
“It was really difficult to get the word out and have people attend,” he said. “We thought a better approach would be an online public auction. So we sent out a request for proposals just last week” to allow that, plus more advertising.
While UDOT’s website now includes information about available surplus property, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, Senate chairman of the Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, urged UDOT to at least create links with state websites that auction off surplus equipment to help raise awareness.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, a real estate agent, said the best way to get top dollar is to aggressively publicize auctions, and UDOT vowed it will going forward.
Marshall said another reason the sale of surplus land may be slow is that for parcels obtained through the threat of condemnation, the state must offer the previous owner the first right of refusal to buy it back at fair market value. Carlos Braceras, UDOT’s executive director, said some owners died long ago and tracking down their heirs takes time.
Braceras also said some surplus parcels are essentially landlocked with no easy access, so UDOT has been offering them to adjacent landowners in those cases.
“This is really important,” Harper said about the attempts to sell the surplus property. “It puts property back onto the market and the tax rolls” and removes a burden from UDOT “from people asking, ‘Hey, how come you’re not mowing weeds on this?’”