Moab • Local elected leaders’ halt to new commercial lodging construction in this overwhelmed tourist hot spot has enraged some property owners and raised alarms in the state Capitol.
Mayor Emily Niehaus acknowledged that local businesses and property owners, developers, real estate agents, investors and — more recently — state leaders are all wondering with concern, “What is Moab doing?”
Last month, Niehaus was summoned to Salt Lake City for two days of meetings with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), the governor’s deputy chief of staff and Utah Senate President Stuart Adams to answer questions.
Niehaus told The Tribune her message was basically, “We’re getting organized.”
Local leaders fear the governor or lawmakers could step in with legislation to restrict municipal zoning and regulatory powers. There has been some discussion of that, but legislative leaders now assure that they are content to leave it up to locals to solve their issues.
“I’m not sure whether there will be legislation or not,” Senate President Stuart Adams told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview last week , adding that he is optimistic there won’t be a need for legislative intervention.
Adams said he heard concerns coming from landowners, legislators and others, and that in the case of at least one hotel project, developers “had bought property and expended a considerable amount of money to try and work on a project and then the moratorium went on and then their land use was changed,” Adams said.
“So the encouragement [to the mayor and local officials] was to go try and work it out, so there isn’t legislation,” Adams said. “My hope is that legislation is not imminent, that the city and county work this out between the landowners in the area and themselves.”
Turns out the hotel project at issue, brought to the Senate president and the area’s Sen. David Hinkins, was outside Moab City limits and it still has a green light pending some final rules because it was submitted before Grand County also pushed the pause button on such development.
City Manager Joel Linares said locals are alway concerned when there’s talk of legislation that would remove municipal authority, but he spends a lot of time at the Capitol and doesn’t see anything heading into the lawmaking session beginning in January.
“I know that it's a concern of ours that they could and that they have considered it but we're not aware of anything that's running and the mayor's not either,” he said.
Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert, said he “appreciate[d] meeting with Mayor Niehaus and other local leaders to get a firsthand report on the challenges and opportunities facing Moab and Grand County.”
“The Legislature may choose to address some of these issues so it is always good to hear the perspective of local officials,” he offered.
Tom Adams, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation at GOED, met with Niehaus and said his office wants to be supportive of Moab as it plans for Utah’s projected rapid growth in coming years.
“Moab has defined what recreation is to Utah and then to the nation in a lot of ways,” Adams said. “It’s world-class for mountain biking, rock climbing, to extreme sports and nature and everything in between. It houses many of our national treasures. We all care about it.”
Tourist tidal wave
On the doorsteps of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Moab, with a permanent population of about 5,000, draws millions of tourists. During its busiest weekends “No Vacancy” signs illuminate the entrances to RV parks and motel clerks turn visitors away by the dozens. Grand County estimates there are about 4,500 short-term and nightly rental units on the market, and Airbnb reported a record-breaking 36,600 visitors to Grand County this summer, third highest in the state.
Earlier this year Moab and Grand County decided something was going to give, so they decided to hit pause to give them the chance to figure out how to guide more sensible growth in the future.
In February, the city and county councils separately imposed moratoriums on new hotels and motels and other overnight lodging. Then in July, the councils amended zoning laws to remove overnight accommodations as a land-use right.
While existing commercial businesses are exempt, new building permit applications are not being approved for the construction of additional hotels, motels, RV parks, campgrounds and condos.
At least in the case of Moab, the prohibition on new short-term lodging construction is temporary and that land-use right will be restored, at least in some zones, albeit with new regulations.
That could happen as soon as the end of the year, depending on the speed of work by the city planning commission and its staff, said Moab spokeswoman Lisa Church.
The halt to new construction has caused an uproar among property owners, including complaints to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, the state Office of Property Rights Ombudsman and the Legislature.
The change has “steamrolled” locals, said Moab resident Bob Hines, whose family has owned land here for more than 100 years.
He said he’s been cut out of the county’s and city’s processes for development and land use.
“I have one of the last historical properties in downtown Moab,” Hines, 51, said, adding he now fears the county will use eminent domain to take his property. He vows to fight that to his dying breath.
“Yeah, I’m afraid. Again, are they willing to die for my property? Because I am.”
Grand County resident Kevin Collins said his outdoor recreation career in Moab depends on whether overnight lodging is available. When RV parks and campgrounds are full, he said local businesses can expect trip cancellations.
After attending public meetings this year on the land use planning and zoning, Collins compiled a 67-page report marked with exhibits alleging violations of local and state law during the county’s 6-month moratorium — everything from undisclosed conflicts of interest among council members involved in real estate, to bending of rules around public meetings and notices.
Collins sent his information to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which asked him to file it with the Grand County attorney, said Richard Piatt, spokesman for state Atty. Gen. Sean Reyes.
Collins said he perceives County Attorney Christina Sloan, whose private practice deals with land-use disputes, has her own conflicts of interest.
He and others are frustrated; a few want to form a coalition, some are exploring lawsuits.
“I wonder what the community of Moab would think if they knew the majority of the county council who voted to prohibit the development of new nightly rentals own night rental properties currently,” Grand County-area business developer Wayne Aston said. “It feels like a major conflict of interest.”
Hines has been even more outspoken — saying public officials are “corrupt tyrants” and he has raised the sole Trump banner in a town flush with Bears Ears signs. He also has purchased classified ads to initiate a petition demanding property rights be returned to local residents.
He said on the day his ads published, Aug. 15, he was approached outside his home by detectives from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office.
“I was pulling out of my driveway to go to the store to get a loaf of bread,” Hines said. “They said they’ve had some complaints and said ‘You’re not going to hurt anybody, are you?’ They said the council was concerned because their names were on a list.”
Hines said he handed the officers a copy of his petition to show them that’s where the council members’ names appear, not on any list.
Hines said he has not had contact with individual council members and said he doesn’t know why he’s being criminally investigated.
“Not only is it spreading fear, this is slandering me,” Hines said.
Grand County Sheriff’s Lt. Kim Neal was one of the detectives who talked with Hines. He declined to disclose information about the investigation. When asked if Hines’ recent angry speech about public officials posed a direct threat that would necessitate a criminal investigation, Neal said no.
Tribune government editor Dan Harrie contributed to this report.