Would-be developer of Bridal Veil Falls sues Utah County over conservation plan

Commissioner who led the preservation effort calls lawsuit ‘mind-boggling.’

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

The effort to permanently preserve Provo Canyon’s Bridal Veil Falls as a public space appears to have hit a snag.

Richard Losee, the owner of the high-end Cirque Lodge treatment centers, filed a lawsuit in Utah’s 4th District Court on Wednesday. His complaint claims a conservation easement the Utah County Commission placed on the falls last month violated county code.

Losee has ambitions to develop a private addiction treatment lodge at the top of the falls, along with an aerial tramway that the public could occasionally pay to ride. The commission’s action foiled those plans.

“There is no need for the county to deed such an easement to a third party as the county is already fully capable of ‘conserving’ the Bridal Veil Falls property at essentially no cost to the public,” the complaint claims. “The only reason for granting such an easement was to prevent a future [commission] from allowing some other use of the Bridal Veil Falls property.”

The complaint further argues that Commissioners Bill Lee, Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie erred by unanimously voting to make the county-owned property “surplus” due to the value of the falls, alleging the county was trying to “avoid statutory disposition requirements.”

“They didn’t cross their t’s and didn’t dot their i’s” said Bruce Baird, Losee’s attorney. “Before you dispose of property, you’re supposed to get fair value for it.”

Placing the Bridal Veil parcels under a conservation easement prohibits commercial development of the property or other changes other than improvements to trails and some public safety features. Baird argued that the easement “gave away all useful value” of the land.

“Utah County Code ... specifies that a surplus property is only real property with a value of less than $1,500,” the legal complaint says, noting the county paid $2.3 million for the Bridal Veil Falls parcels.

“I’ve done several conservation easement matters, and I know what conservation easements are worth and they didn’t follow the process,” Baird said. “The value of the conservation easement is worth more than $1,500.”

The county code the lawsuit cites says for any surplus property worth more than $1,500, the method for selling or disposing of it “must be approved prior to the commencement of negotiations” by the commission, which does not appear to limit the value of property the county can declare surplus.

“We declared the North County Equestrian Park surplus, and it’s worth millions of dollars,” Ivie, who is no longer a commissioner, said. “So I don’t know why his argument would be that [Bridal Veil] is worth too much.”

The county had to declare Bridal Veil Falls surplus so nonprofit Utah Open Lands could become the conservation easement holder for the property, according to Ivie, but the county continues to own the parcels.

“Declaring it surplus allows the process to move forward and allows a public hearing,” Ivie said. “Apparently Mr. Losee missed out on the 90%-plus people of this county who agreed with it being declared surplus property and placed in a conservation easement.”

At a hearing on the fall’s conservation plans that lasted nearly four hours on Dec. 9, members of the public overwhelmingly spoke in favor of protecting the property from future development, including Losee’s tram plans.

The $1,500 property threshold exists in county code, Ivie added, to avoid cumbersome public hearing processes for relatively inexpensive items the county wants to offload, like used computers and office equipment.

Ivie lost his reelection bid to Tom Sakievich in the Republican primary. Sakievich replaced Ivie on the County Commission this month, and Losee was one of Sakievich’s top campaign donors. Ivie had led the conservation easement effort during his final weeks in office after hearing from county residents who were worried about the fate of Bridal Veil Falls.

The former commissioner said he wasn’t surprised that Losee took legal action over the county’s protection of the falls, but added the county followed the proper legal process and he doubted the lawsuit would succeed.

“It’s mind-boggling to me,” Ivie said. “Anyone who attended that public hearing, who looked through the emails we received and the public response, has got to understand that what we did as a commission was the will of the public.”