Colorful attorney has reshaped Utah’s landscape one lawsuit at a time

Attorney for deep-pocketed developers has helped some cities grow while making others shrink, often with a brash style that puts him at odds with the public.

(Courtesy Bruce Baird) Real estate attorney Bruce Baird, photographed here at his vacation home in Costa Rica, has spent years litigating against Utah cities and counties on behalf of developers, sometimes to the public's ire.

If you try calling attorney Bruce Baird about one of his many lawsuits over the past few years, odds are good you’ll catch him at his vacation home in Costa Rica.

“People say I paid for it with the Tooele settlement, but that’s not true,” Baird said, referring to a whopping $21 million judgment Baird won against the city of Tooele a decade ago, on behalf of the Overlake subdivision developer.

Utah residents might recognize Baird’s name from more recent cases, like his successful push to get the contentious Olympia Hills development approved in Salt Lake County. Or his failed attempt to pressure Utah County into letting a client build a swanky lodge atop Bridal Veil Falls. Or when he intimidated the town of Bluff into giving up hundreds of acres of its brand-new town.

Baird seems a little apprehensive letting the public know he also owns an estate on a Central American hillside, complete with ocean view, noting that he realizes it might sound “pretentious.”

“You can make a joke about it: ‘He called me from his mansion in Costa Rica,’” Baird quipped, pointing out that he uses the property for fundraisers, too, aiding organizations like the Ronald McDonald House and the Boys and Girls Club. This week, he’s raising money there for local lifeguards with a National Geographic photographer.

Charging $590 an hour, Baird has certainly earned a slice of the good life, along with the luxury of picking and choosing his clients. He has built a reputation as a tenacious bulldog for deep-pocketed developers.

“Somebody [once] asked me what I do for work, and I said, ‘all I do is difficult dirt,’” Baird said. He liked the term “difficult dirt” so much he registered it as his company name at one point. It’s still his email domain.

Baird has also reshaped the literal land of Utah — he says his cases have resulted in 60,000 housing units — all while going to bat against Utah governments large and small.

“Bruce Baird is a very passionate litigator,” said Scott Wardle, a former Tooele City Council member who was stuck trying to figure out how to pay off that $21 million Overlake ruling. “He zealously represents his [clients]. It’s not fun being on the other side, I will tell you that.”

Baird, on the other hand, seems to revel in poking opponents. When asked whether he thought Tooele would appeal the Overlake case to the state Supreme Court in 2012, he said, “Maybe at some point the citizens of Tooele city will get tired of spending millions of dollars on lawyers and losing.”

Patents, screenplays and politics

Baird grew up in Fruita, Colo., a desert town near the Utah border. His father served as a City Council member and, later, mayor. But Baird apparently had an eye to make a bigger mark on bigger places.

“Fruita is a place [just] to be from, it’s a small town,” he said. “I dropped out of high school to go to what I called the University of Alta and Snowbird, otherwise known as the University of Utah, where I just skied all the time.”

Despite an early preference for snow over studies, Baird comes from ambitious stock.

His brother, Brian Baird, served as a congressman representing Washington state from 1999 to 2011. His sister, Maggie Baird, is a Los Angeles-based actress and screenwriter. He’s the uncle of Grammy-winning musician Billie Eilish (her full name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell) as well as her brother and artistic collaborator, Finneas O’Connell, who is also a Grammy awardee.

“Sort of a weird claim to fame,” Baird said in an email confirming his relations. “But I am also an inventor with 4 US patents.”

Indeed, it seems Baird doesn’t want to only be known as a high-profile Utah-based attorney.

His registered patents are for an automated computer search invention. Baird also dabbles in writing novels and screenplays, although he hasn’t managed to sell any.

(Courtesy Bruce Baird) Utah real estate attorney Bruce Baird enjoys the views while reading the news at his second home in Costa Rica. The "quasi-retired" litigator still takes on the occasional high-profile case, including an effort by the town of Hideout to reach across county lines and annex hundreds of acres without Summit County's approval.

He has two adult sons — one a tattoo artist and the other enrolled in a video game program at the U. — both of whom it is clear he is proud.

“Neither one of them want to be lawyers,” Baird said, unprompted. “That’s always a question people ask.”

In 1984, Baird ran against the late Rep. Howard Nielson for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat. But as a candidate on the Democratic ticket, Baird predictably lost in a landslide.

“Hell if I remember, Baird said, asked what issues he campaigned on. “The party asked me to run and I ran. And it was a good learning experience. And it was fun, actually.”

An “atheist at the age of eight” who still likes to quote the Bible, Baird is unapologetic about his politics. His voicemail greeting includes a jeer about former president Donald Trump and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I despise Donald Trump,” he said.

He also doesn’t worry about it costing him business, even in conservative Utah.

“My clients know my political beliefs and my clients don’t hire me or reject me for my political beliefs, my clients hire me or reject me for my skill,” he said. “And if they don’t want to do it because I think Trump’s a lunatic, that’s not my problem. I don’t need their money.”

He once served as a columnist for City Weekly, which he misses, and a talking head in local Salt Lake media, championing controversial causes like legalized drugs and gambling.

In a 2015 YouTube series called “What Do You Think, Utah?” — hosted by radio personality Bill Allred — Baird once butted heads with former Utah Rep. Mike Noel over the state’s attempts to seize public lands from the federal government.

“I’m a development lawyer. I make my money off of people developing lands,” Baird told Noel, a Republican from Kanab. “But there’s a big difference in developing out in Herriman and South Jordan, and developing on the top of a priceless national treasure.”

Asked how he squared that opinion with his litigation over Bridal Veil Falls — where his client wanted to build a private drug treatment lodge on a Provo landmark many Utahns have said they consider invaluable — Baird said the public simply didn’t understand what the project proposed to do.

“The development at Bridal Veil was so de minimis and unintrusive that I thought it wasn’t what people were claiming it was,” Baird said.

The proposed lodge would have included an aerial tram ascending the falls that the public could occasionally use for a fee.

“If anything, the tram at Bridal Veil Falls would be less intrusive than the tram at Snowbird,” Baird said.

After a pause, he continued, “I’m not a big fan of hypocrites,” adding that he sometimes quoted Dante’s “Inferno” to cryptically call city and county officials hypocrites in meetings, “confined to the sixth ditch of the eighth circle of hell.”

I’ve got this list of hypocritical [statements]. I call it ‘developers bingo,’” Baird said, “based off of what people say at city council meetings.”

Examples include “It looks great but just not here,” “We will lose open space,” and “It will screw up my ward boundaries.”

‘Even if we won, we’d lose’

His niche in real estate litigation, Baird said, came by chance.

A few years after graduating from the U.’s law school in 1978, Baird found himself working for Salt Lake City as a deputy attorney, spending part of his time on land-use questions.

“I knew literally nothing about land use at all. I didn’t know what the word ‘zoning’ meant until I went to work for the city,” Baird said. ”[But] I came to like it and understand it and be pretty good at it.”

Baird was also pretty good at stirring up controversy. On a local TV talk show in late 1993, he called Ross Perot “lunative and a fascist,” and said that the billionaire third-party presidential candidate “believes everyone is trying to assassinate him. He’s still alive — too bad!

That proved embarrassing to his bosses at Salt Lake City, given that Baird was working on the city’s gun-control policy. The city attorney wrote Baird up. Baird then sued the city in federal court for violating his free speech rights.

It’s not the first time Baird’s barbs made his employers uncomfortable. He had apparently called city employees “Nazis” and Association of Community Councils members “slacko-wackos” at a public meeting, according to news reports about the case.

The city eventually settled with Baird for $115,000 in 1996 in exchange for Baird quitting his job.

Thus began a decadeslong career of Baird clashing with Utah’s municipal governments, often in high-profile cases.

Just the past few years show how Baird’s influence as a private litigator has swept across the state.

On the Wasatch Back, Baird successfully exploited a legal loophole to help the small bedroom community of Hideout to reach across county lines and scoop up a vast swath of land that many Summit County residents had hoped to preserve as open space. That fight quickly grew ugly, with protesters showing up at the Hideout mayor’s home and trolls Zoom bombing the Town Council’s meetings.

All those sons of b----- should have been taken out and shot,” Baird told the Town Council in October, which drew swift condemnation from elected leaders in Park City and Summit County.

Baird later told The Tribune that he regretted his words.

In Southern Utah, Baird made the tiny town of Bluff give up a sizeable chunk of its newly incorporated town. Mere weeks after forming its first official government, Baird sent a letter to Bluff officials demanding they relinquish a 391-acre parcel on the tip of Comb Ridge owned by Baird’s client, an air-ambulance entrepreneur.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Comb Ridge, located within the Bears Ears National Monument, June 26, 2020.

“It’s a very popular piece of land to get into the Comb Ridge formation. I believe it’s the only handicap-accessible access,” said Ann Leppanen, the town mayor, who is also a lawyer. “Emotionally, it was very difficult for the town to let it go, but I did a lot of research on Mr. Baird and ... he’s very successful in what he does.”

Despite a $10,000 donation to fight the lawsuit, the town concluded that their fledgling budget couldn’t stand up to a legal fight led by Baird.

“If we’d litigated this, even if we won, we’d lose,” Leppanen said.

Baird claims his client didn’t know the land would be included in the town boundaries. Leppanen countered that they published meeting notices, held public hearings and sent out letters to individual landowners.

“I would like to think Mr. Baird was being honest,” the mayor said. “[But] if you look at Mr. Baird’s track record, I have a hard time believing things slip by him for clients of that magnitude.”

Most recently was the Bridal Veil Falls project, which proved wildly unpopular with people in Utah County and beyond.

In an effort spurred by former commissioner Nathan Ivie, the county quickly placed the falls under a conservation easement to block the scheme. Baird and his client promptly sued, with a convoluted legal argument that Ivie called “mind-boggling.”

The developer dropped his lawsuit weeks ago after Utah legislators drafted up plans to make Bridal Veil Falls a state monument or park.

‘A hard-nosed dude’

Despite the many headlines and negative public perceptions Baird’s cases have garnered, the lawyer said he doesn’t delight in litigation.

“I prefer to do projects where … you can actually get things done working with the local government,” he said. “If you check with a whole bunch of people, you’ll find that I’ve done far more projects ... peacefully rather than having to fight.”

Draper Mayor Troy Walker said he first met Baird as a city council member in the mid-2000s, when the city and the SunCrest subdivision developers, represented by Baird, got into a dispute over a botched road.

Walker now considers Baird a friend.

“I love Bruce. Man, he’s a hard-nosed dude, but I appreciate a good litigator like he is,” said Walker, who is also an attorney. “He can be bombastic, brash, but that’s just his style.”

Some of Baird’s most bitter legal battles seem to have lost their sting with time, morphing into beneficial situations for both his clients and the cities he took to court.

The $21 million Overlake judgment that left Tooele officials stunned back in 2012 has led to a thriving mixed-use community with hundreds of homes.

City leaders were able to reduce the final payout by offering Overlake’s developers, Tooele Associates, water rights and other development rights.

“It worked out to be in everyone’s interest. Everyone was happy,” Baird said.

Wardle, the former City Council member who helped negotiate those payments, called it a “a fascinating way to create a public-private partnership” that brought in more sales tax revenue.

“Retailers came, jobs came, services came, which keeps the economic engine rolling,” Wardle said. “Had the settlement not been reached, we would have never seen those housetops, we would not have seen the developer reinvest the money back into Tooele City.”

Still, Wardle noted that Tooele City and the Overlake developers only reached their agreement after meeting together in a room where lawyers weren’t allowed. While litigation is sometimes necessary for municipalities, with attorneys, often “it’s more important to fight than fix,” he said.

“There comes a time when cooler minds must prevail and do their best to benefit the public,” said Wardle, who now serves on the Tooele County Council. “Because at the end of the day, with attorney fees, attorneys get rich ... and the cities don’t.”