Utah County Commission votes to preserve Bridal Veil Falls under a conservation easement

Move saves site from developer’s proposal to build an aerial tramway, exclusive drug treatment center at the top of the falls.

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

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie’s attempt to save Bridal Veil Falls from development during his final days in office proved successful Wednesday night.

The county’s three commissioners voted unanimously to place the landmark under a conservation easement, which will be deeded to Utah Open Lands, although the county will retain ownership of the land. Prior to the vote, the commission listened to nearly four hours of public comments in support of preserving the falls. Most were from Utah County. They included Brigham Young University professors and high school students, ice climbers and hikers, nonprofits and politicians.

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi spoke first.

“We support any measures to preserve and enhance the site for the benefit of residents and visitors,” she said. “Bridal Veil Falls is one of the most significant natural wonders in the valley ... in its current undeveloped state, the area attracts people precisely because it is experienced as a natural treasure, owned by no one but protected and preserved by and for the public.”

Developer Richard Losee has quietly worked with Commissioner Bill Lee on a proposal to build an aerial tramway and an exclusive drug treatment center at the top of the falls, complete with a helicopter pad. Losee would have charged the public to ride the tram for an unspecified fee for part of the year.

Last month, Ivie requested a public hearing about preserving the falls to prevent such development.

Members of the public bristled at the private tram and lodge idea as well.

Although the waterfall once had a tram, several commenters said it didn’t need another. Many said they valued visiting the site because it currently had little development. Some noted that the rapidly growing county was running out of undeveloped spaces or pointed to how the pandemic has highlighted a need for free outdoor recreation. Others wondered if taxpayers would be left with cleaning up Losee’s structures if they were damaged by an avalanche like the last tram or if Losee’s business folded. A few worried a tram and lodge would disturb nesting sites for sensitive bird species.

BYU professor Brigham Daniels said that even if the commission rejected Losee’s plans, failing to secure permanent protection for the falls could mean a future commission someday allows full or partial privatization of the beloved county asset.

“We just need to remove that temptation,” Daniels said. “A conservation easement is the most logical way.”

Commissioner Lee, who took some heat for emailing and meeting with Losee about his vision several times since 2018, repeated a prior public statement that he was opposed to selling off any part of Bridal Veil Falls.

“Bridal Veil Falls has not been for sale,” Lee said. “That seems to be a narrative pushed around over and over.”

Only a handful of people spoke against the conservation easement proposal. Two of them were Losee’s lawyers.

“Adopting a full-blown conservation easement ... is something that can’t be easily unwound,” said Bruce Baird, one of the developer’s attorneys, adding that “what you’ve heard is an awful lot of attacks and scare tactics around the use of the property.”

Baird added that Losee only wanted to buy or lease an acre of the county’s 21-acre property. He said the county’s existing plans to enhance the falls — which includes restrooms as well as improved trails and parking — is “almost exactly” what the developer is trying to do with three “small” exceptions.

“No. 1, a relatively small base station for the tram. No. 2, a small set of cables running up the mountain ... and No. 3, a very small landing facility at the top,” Baird said. “No person would be distracted or in any way prohibited from enjoying Bridal Veil Falls in its natural state.”

“The ice climbers would still be able to climb, the birds would still be able to fly,” Baird said.

Attorney John Buckley read a statement from Losee.

“If all the facts were known, Mr. Losee believes that the majority of Utah residents would fully embrace the vision” of rebuilding a tram, Buckley said.

Buckley noted that he had “numerous” signatures from people who supported another tram at Bridal Veil Falls, although he did not say how many.

Commissioner Tanner Ainge, however, called out both attorneys for mischaracterizing the facts.

“It was stated that the vast majority or overwhelming majority of the county would support this vision if they knew what it was. I disagree with that,” Ainge said, adding that he had received “hundreds or thousands of emails” that voice opposition to the proposed development.

“I think that’s really searching to try and find that conclusion,” Ainge said.

The commissioner also disagreed with Baird’s suggestion that the tram and private lodge were small deviations from the county’s existing improvement plans.

“Those are a few massive departures from what our public works department laid out,” Ainge said.