Homebuilder gets an $800K sound wall by going around the highway department and lobbying the Legislature

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Legislature ordered a sound wall along a field bordering the west side of Bangerter Highway in South Jordan, Friday, March 29, 2019.

Tucked deep inside a final budget bill unveiled and passed the final night of this year’s legislative session is an $800,000 taxpayer gift to Bryson Garbett, a prominent homebuilder and former legislator, who had the help of House Speaker-turned-lobbyist Greg Curtis.

On page 32 of SB3, the 66-page, last-chance-for-money bill, is the following directive:

“The Legislature intends that the Department of Transportation use $800,000 from the Transportation Fund to construct a sound barrier along Mountain View Corridor at 8157 South Mapleleaf Way, West Jordan.”

Actually, the property borders Bangerter Highway, not the Mountain View Corridor, a little mistake that may have been the result of its hasty insertion into the bill.

With a few exceptions, the Legislature does not normally order specific transportation projects. That’s the job of the Utah Transportation Commission, which reviews and prioritizes potential projects statewide using objective criteria to help take politics out of the process. The sound wall item inserted into SB3 sidestepped that.

Property records show the address listed is for 26 acres of what has been farmland that is now owned by Aurora Heights, LC, and is valued at $1.8 million. State records show that the company’s manager and agent is Garbett, president and CEO of Garbett Homes.

A Google map satellite view showing a West Jordan field to be developed by Bryson Garbett, a homebuilder who is a former legislator. The Legislature took an unusual step to order an $800,000 sound barrier to be built along its border with Bangerter Highway.

The Garbett family has a long and diverse political history. Bryson Garbett served as a Republican state legislator from 1982 to 1986. Jan Garbett, Bryson’s wife, ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for lieutenant governor in 2016 and as a United Utah Party candidate for Congress last year. Garbett’s son, David, is running for mayor of Salt Lake City this year in a nonpartisan race dominated by Democrats.

Bryson Garbett said in an interview that he plans to build 77 homes on 10,000-square-foot lots on the parcel adjacent to busy Bangerter Highway.

“But it’s noisy,” he said. “I don’t think you would want to live there without a sound wall.”

He notes that adjacent subdivisions have sound barriers.

Garbett said he approached Utah Department of Transportation officials to seek a sound wall for his property, too. “But they said no. We thought they were treating us and that property unfairly. Everyone else [nearby] has a sound wall. Why would they not put one there? We didn’t get anywhere with them.”

UDOT spokesman Zach Whitney said that as highways are built, his agency follows formulas to determine where sound barriers are needed based on noise that is likely to disturb nearby homes. Farmland and undeveloped property do not qualify for sound barriers. If they are later developed, UDOT may reevaluate — but that usually happens after development is completed.

After UDOT refused his request, Garbett decided to take his case directly to the Legislature and hired Curtis, the former speaker, as his lobbyist.

Curtis said he had seen a similar sound wall order in legislation previously. “I thought, ‘That’s creative.’ So when I was called by Garbett Management, it seemed like, ‘Well, we’ll give it a try.’”

He went about the job by “just talking with members of the Legislature. I’m not comfortable in using names.” Curtis declined to identify the lawmakers he lobbied and who, precisely, inserted the item in the final appropriations bill.

He said he did approach members of the Executive Appropriations Committee, which annually writes SB3 — and its two co-chairmen are the official sponsors.

“I mean, the bill obviously is run by the appropriations chairs, and other members of leadership are keenly aware of what goes in and doesn’t go in the bill,” Curtis said. The Utah Legislature’s top leaders are Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, both of whom are developers.

The two co-chairmen of the budget committee, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, did not immediately return phone calls about the Garbett funding provision.

Curtis said he tried to persuade lawmakers by saying, “Look guys, there are residential subdivisions developed there with sound walls right up to the edge of this property on both sides and stop.”

He compared the situation to having three houses in a row but skipping a sound wall for one in the middle. “We would see the absurdity of that.”

Garbett said he did not realize the funding had been approved. “I didn’t even know that passed until you called,” he told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter two weeks after the legislative session ended.

He believes it was the right thing to do.

“It was a case of where UDOT was being unfair," Garbett said, “and the Legislature corrected that.”

Whitney, the UDOT spokesman, declined comment about the appropriation and the process used to get it, except to say if it is something lawmakers want, UDOT is fine with that.

The bill has yet to be signed by Gov. Gary Herbert. Utah law allows a potential line item veto for him to remove portions of appropriations bills that he dislikes.