The fate of Bridal Veil Falls at a crossroads: Preserved as public space or sold off to a developer?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bridal Veil Falls in Provo Canyon on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.

Whether Provo Canyon’s Bridal Veil Falls is preserved as a natural space or developed into a drug treatment center with tram access may come down to a last-minute effort by a departing Utah County commissioner.

Nathan Ivie, who lost his reelection bid to Tom Sakievich in the Republican primary, requested a public hearing about placing the falls in a conservation easement at the commission’s most recent meeting. Details haven’t been made public, but such easements typically limit commercial growth and conserve the natural and scenic features of a property.

Ivie said he was first approached with the idea about a week before he floated it at the commission meeting Nov. 18.

“A couple of private citizens were concerned that as soon as I left office, developers had the votes they needed to sell off a public treasure for private gain,” Ivie said. “We have to be forward thinking. They don’t make places like this. It’s one of the most visited waterfalls in America.”

Ivie’s move came as a surprise to Commissioner Bill Lee, who has spent the past year working on other lofty plans for the iconic falls. Developer Richard Losee, who owns the swanky Cirque Lodge addiction recovery centers, wants to build a lodge at the top, along with an aerial tramway, which he’ll occasionally let the public access if he gets the commission’s permission.

Lee has been negotiating that public access with Losee for more than a year. He called Ivie’s last-minute conservation plans “disturbing,” noting that commissioners typically deliberate over such matters in closed sessions first.

“We have not had any closed meeting discussions. I haven’t even seen a draft or proposal,” Lee said in an interview. “I think this is [Ivie’s] last hurrah, something that he can hang his hat on.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bridal Veil Falls, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

The tram plan

Bridal Veil Falls had a tram before, built in the 1960s, but avalanches severely damaged the structure. It sat unused for more than a decade before being dismantled in 2008. Utah County purchased the falls property from the tram operators in 2015 for $2.4 million, according to the Daily Herald.

The county solicited bids on what to do next with Bridal Veil and ultimately received two offers. Both proposed trams, including a submission from Losee. Both were unanimously rejected by the commissioners, including Ivie and Lee, in October 2018.

“The biggest reason I voted against it, putting my personal feelings aside, was public opposition,” Ivie said. “The public loves Bridal Veil Falls. They love a place that’s not commercialized where you can go connect with nature. That’s why the county bought it in the first place.”

A couple of months after the vote, emails show Lee was working with Losee and the developer’s architect to further iron out plans for the tram and treatment center.

“Thank you for your time on the phone the other day and for your direction on how to proceed,” the architect, Curtis Miner, wrote Dec. 12, 2018. “We would like to see the final resolution you develop before it is presented to the Commission for consideration.”

Miner also emailed a draft resolution of support for the county Planning Commission that included more detail about Losee’s concept.

The plan includes the tram, a base station and upper lodge. The resolution notes that members of the public will have access to the structures for at least part of the year, after paying an unspecified fee, and that lodge staff will monitor the site around the clock. It also notes that the county will support Losee’s acquisition of land needed for the development, whether through sale or lease, for a proposed $495,000.

Lee said he’s interested in Losee’s plan because it will improve the falls site and create a tourist destination with the tram, all without spending any taxpayer funds. He also likes the idea of 24-7 monitoring.

“One of the most frustrating things I’ve done as a commissioner is try to get something done up there,” Lee said. “It’s the Wild West. There are no bathrooms, so there’s toilet paper everywhere. People die on a regular basis. It’s just not a safe spot.”

Selling any portion of the county-owned falls and charging a fee for access, however, are unsavory prospects to some.

“We have a real need right now in our state for wholesome outdoor recreation that’s free,” said Mark Allen, founder of Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon. “The last thing we need to do is sell off county assets where people go with their families. The last thing we need to do is privatize them.”

But placing Bridal Veil under a conservation easement would require approval from at least two of the county commissioners, and advocates of that proposal worry they’re running out of time.

Sakievich will replace Ivie in January, and Losee was one of Sakievich’s top campaign donors.

“I am worried that a treasure like Bridal Veil Falls would not have full and complete support from all three commissioners” once Ivie leaves, Allen said. “Let’s seal the deal. Let’s protect this in perpetuity.”

Following the money

Financial disclosures show Losee donated $7,500 total to Sakievich’s campaign, making him the candidate’s second biggest donor. The first $2,500 payment came June 11, 2020, and a second came June 25, just days before Sakievich bested Ivie in the GOP primary election June 30.

“What kind of promises has Sakievich made?” Ivie said. “I’d love to hear his thoughts.”

Reached by phone, Sakievich said he met Losee only after the primary, but would not disclose how many times they have met since. He added that it wasn’t his place to offer opinions on the Bridal Veil Falls discussion until he’s sworn in to the commission in January.

“The current County Commission should pursue its course,” he said, adding that the commissioners should at least invite Losee to share his plans at a public hearing. “If it goes into 2021, I’ll take it on its merits. But I’m not owned by Losee.”

Losee did not contribute to Lee’s campaign in 2018, but the commissioner acknowledged Losee has financially backed causes he supports. Losee donted $5,000 on Sept. 1, 2020, to the “Stop Prop 9” political issues committee. That campaign successfully defeated an effort, backed by Ivie and opposed by Lee, that would have changed the county’s form of government to a mayor and council instead of a commission.

“I’ve known Richard [Losee] for years,” Lee said. “It has no quid pro quo to it. But people can draw their own conclusions, which is the problem.”

As proof that the commissioner isn’t in the businessman’s pocket, Lee pointed to the fact he originally voted against Losee’s proposal in 2018. He also called Losee’s Bridal Veil dream a “long shot.”

Part of the planned lodge extends onto U.S. Forest Service land, which would require an agreement or property swap. The proposed docking station is on a Utah Department of Transportation parking lot, which would need signoff from that agency. The development will likely involve an environmental impact review as well.

“To get all those things to line up is almost like hitting home runs in every inning,” Lee said. “But he’s willing to explore it. All I want is the opportunity to explore it.”

Public hearing

Commissioner Tanner Ainge’s vote could ultimately decide Bridal Veil Falls’ future. He said that shortly after his election to the commission in late 2018, Losee approached him with the tram plans. Ainge also found the proposal unrealistic.

“It’s public property. We need to know what the public wants to happen there,” Ainge said. “In terms of having a treatment center up there, that’s not anything I think the public is going to want to support.”

The Provo City Council plans to vote Tuesday on a resolution supporting preservation of the falls.

While Lee bristled at the idea of tying up county land in perpetuity, he ultimately joined with Ivie and Ainge to approve a public hearing on the conservation easement idea. That hearing is scheduled at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9.

“It’s not like I’m against listening to the public, but I think the process has been shortened,” Lee said. “I’ve always wanted to listen to the public on what we should do up there.”

Bruce Baird, attorney for Losee, also expressed frustration over the last-minute proposal. He said the treatment lodge would be small and “exclusive,” not a sprawling complex at the top of the falls. The plan further calls for repairing the scar left by the old gondola and beautifying Provo Canyon, he said.

“We could have a proposal that works for everybody. That’s why we think this shouldn’t be done on a rushed basis,” Baird said. “If you send a conservation easement out, you preclude anything in the future. If you take your time and work on a proposal, we can find a win-win situation.”