How a rural Utah town’s bid to incorporate keeps getting bamboozled by outsiders

Legal spats, alleged stalking, land snapped up by neighboring cities and a proposed satellite port are among the hurdles facing Erda as it tries to preserve its community character.

On the day before Christmas, the small town of Erda apparently saw its incorporation dreams dashed.

Erda residents first began working to form their own city in 2018. In the years since, the largely rural community has faced numerous hurdles — from neighboring cities trying to whittle away their proposed boundaries, to perceived county meddling, to alleged harassment from developers’ henchmen. Through it all, Erda residents have continued to gather signatures, hold referendums and show up at the ballot box in an effort to take control of their future.

But the town received a major blow late Friday morning, when many residents were enjoying a day off work and preparing for the holiday weekend. In a letter, the Tooele County surveyor denied Erda’s plat boundary map, one of the last components needed to finalize incorporation.

“I don’t believe this has ever happened,” Erda City Council Chair Jess Bird told The Salt Lake Tribune hours later, his frustration palpable, adding that the letter was issued at “10:24 a.m. on Christmas Eve.”

Surveyor Jerry Houghton cited Utah code — “effective March 16, 2021″ — that states an incorporating city can’t exclude portions of parcels, with a fraction absorbed by the city and the rest remaining unincorporated, unless the owner of the divided parcel gives consent.

Erda began its incorporation process years ago, before that provision was law, and incorporation supporters say that makes the county’s decision moot.

Asked whether the newly elected Erda City Council planned to file emergency legal action over the surveyor’s decision, Bird responded Friday: “Not on Christmas.”

Instead, Bird and a few other Erda residents filed a lawsuit Monday afternoon.

“We’re doing our best,” the council chair said, “to do the right thing.”

‘Not opposed to development’

The surveyor’s decision represents yet another obstacle Erda residents have faced since they began the incorporation process three years ago.

The small community of mostly farmland sits right in the middle of a proposed satellite inland port to the west and an area of booming commercial and residential development to the south and east. And developers are eagerly eyeing the community’s vast swaths of open land.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Open farmland seen in Erda, a community working to become an incorporated city, seen on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

Making Erda an incorporated city would give locally elected councils the power to determine zoning, planning and future growth. That authority currently lies in the hands of Tooele County.

“We ARE NOT opposed to development,” notes the Erda Community Association website, a pro-incorporation group, adding elsewhere that “... maintaining Erda’s rural atmosphere and charm has long been a desire and a goal of the association members and many other residents.”

Despite several lawsuits filed through the years challenging both Erda’s effort to become a self-determining city and nearby cities trying to scoop up some of the town’s neighborhoods, advocates of incorporation counted a few wins in 2020.

(Image from Utah Lt. Governor's Office) At the time Erda residents voted to incorporate as a city in the fall of 2020, adjoining cities had moved to annex large sections within its proposed boundaries. Those annexations remain locked in litigation, and Grantsville just approved a new annexation that would include a proposed satellite inland port.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint had previously announced it would build a temple in Erda, which many residents supported. But in the spring of last year, the church also unveiled plans for a high-density housing project along Highway 36, which residents were less enthusiastic about. In a rare move, church leaders scrapped the development “to avoid discord in the community.” They also relocated the planned temple to Tooele City.

Then, in the 2020 election, Erda voters approved incorporation in that year’s election. County residents also voted down the proposed Shoshone Village development slated for an area just south of the proposed temple development after Erda residents gathered enough signatures for a referendum.

“There’s a lot of concern about growth in general in this valley, because Tooele Valley doesn’t have the water resources that other areas on the Wasatch Front have,” said Leanne Bedell, an Erda resident and referendum sponsor.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artist's rendering of the exterior of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' to-be-constructed Deseret Peak Temple, which as relocated from Erda to Tooele City.

‘The county has ridden roughshod over Erda’

But before Bedell and other community advocates could breathe a sigh of relief, another developer came forward last spring with plans in the same area as Shoshone Village. This time, the development proposal was bigger: The new plan, called Oquirrh Point, would have 1,260 homes on 360 acres versus Shoshone Village’s 174 homes on 131 acres.

In an interview, Oquirrh Point’s developer, Joe Colosimo, said he has designed a thoughtful plan that takes the growing community’s needs into account.

“There are people who want no growth. There are people who want responsible planning,” Colosimo said. “The ‘no growth people,’ it’s hard. Utah has been discovered. People want to live in Erda; they love the area.”

Colosimo touted his development’s benefits — he has agreed to build roads and intersections that would have fallen on the county’s shoulders. He intends to add water and sewer. He plans to preserve 90 acres as open space, include 65 acres of agricultural land. He said he’ll donate 10 acres for a school, along with 3 acres and $1 million for a new Erda City Hall as an “olive branch” to the community.

In October, the Tooele County Council approved a rezone request that will allow Oquirrh Point to move forward, even after several Erda residents called on county officials to let the city finish its incorporation process and decide the fabric of its communities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erda seen on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

“The county has ridden roughshod over Erda,” Bedell said. “Ethically they should have said, ‘Erda has agreed to incorporate, put this on hold.”

Undeterred, community organizers began gathering signatures for another referendum, calling on Tooele County voters to oppose Oquirrh Point’s rezone and let Erda residents determine whether the rezone should go forward.

“We realize some growth is inevitable. But we feel it should be done in an organized way,” Bedell said. “Urban or suburban development should not be built wherever a developer feels they can make the most money.”

But Colosimo noted several parcels in Oquirrh Point’s footprint are currently zoned commercial, which would allow him to build denser apartments or large hotels instead — something the developer said he’ll move forward with if Erda’s referendum succeeds.

Gathering signatures, encountering harassment

Meanwhile, signature gatherers for the referendum allege the developer has hired people to follow and intimidate them.

“We’ve had to call the cops three to four times, because they’ve been stalking and harassing canvassers and volunteers,” said Shawni Colley with Landslide Political, a firm Erda residents hired to help with the referendum.

Colley provided video and audio of two encounters between her employees and people she alleges were hired to harass them. In one recording, a man offers to pay a canvasser to work for him instead, noting “you can still work for them [Landslide] but, like, still work with us.”

One Landslide employee turned over his packet of signatures to a referendum opponent, Colley said, after being offered $800. Another employee, Jasmine Johnson, spoke to The Tribune and said an opponent offered her $750. In another case, a black vehicle with no license plates followed her around as she canvassed with her baby. She worried it would ram her car.

“I was kind of intimidated by them,” Johnson said. “I thought they were going to [escalate] the situation.”

The Tribune also obtained police reports from Tooele City police and the Tooele County Sheriff’s Office documenting complaints from Landslide workers this month (Grantsville did not respond to a request for police records).

In the Tooele City report, a police officer spoke to a man watching a female canvasser from his Jeep. The man explained that he “worked for the developer that the woman was gathering signatures against” and acknowledged his behavior “did look suspicious.”

Colosimo denied that he had recruited people to intimidate canvassers.

“I did hire a P.R. firm to get our narrative out there so it was explained correctly,” he said. “We didn’t hire them to bully people or harass. I hope they didn’t do that.”

Canvassers delivered their last packet of signatures on the Christmas Eve deadline (they had 45 todays to gather signatures after getting the referendum approved, per state law). According to the Tooele County clerk’s office, 2,929 signatures have been verified. To get on next year’s ballot, the referendum will need 5,508 signatures.

Losing a third of the city to an inland port?

Neighboring Grantsville has also attempted to incorporate sections of Erda’s proposed 43-square-mile city, including 250 acres slated to become the Skywalk technology business park. A state judge placed a temporary injunction on that annexation last fall, as reported by the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Most recently, on Dec. 22, the Grantsville City Council accepted an annexation request of nearly 8,000 acres that Erda had included in its boundary map. That latest annexation effort includes a large portion of a satellite inland port quietly pushed by The Romney Group, an investment firm helmed by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s son Josh Romney.

(In an interview Tuesday, Grantsville City Attorney Brett M. Coombs noted that the City Council must accept annexation petitions by law. Those requests must also go through public review and a final vote before getting officially absorbed by the city.)

Elected officials in Tooele County previously have expressed support for the port, according to correspondence previously obtained by The Tribune. And plans are already in motion to build a 12-mile rail spur accessing the Romney-owned Lakeview industrial park in the area.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

But members of the newly elected Erda City Council, who took office last month, have expressed hesitation about having an inland port in their neighborhood.

“The wear and tear on infrastructure, with trucks coming in and out, how are we going to pay for that?” asked council member Joshua Kael Martin. “Is it going to make us any money? There’s a lot of stuff that’s concerning about it.”

Another thing Martin finds concerning is that one of the new Erda City Council members, Craig Smith, appears to have facilitated the inland port annexation into Grantsville, wiping away nearly a third of Erda’s voter-approved boundaries, and mere days before Smith was elected to serve Erda on the council.

Smith is an “authorized representative” for Six Mile Ranch, according to the Transcript Bulletin, and documents show he paid Grantsville $1,025 in fees for an annexation petition Nov. 1. Erda held its election for council members on Nov. 2.

Smith did not return call for comment from The Tribune, but he told the Transcript Bulletin in 2020 that owners of Six Mile Ranch felt “it’s unsettling to be put into a new city where everything is unknown [other] than they are 100% against growth.”

Martin said he’s not sure why his colleague on the council would help facilitate a reduction in Erda’s land area.

“I’m concerned that there is a councilman [involved with] the annexation,” he said. “... It’s not in the best interest of [Erda] to lose a third of the city.”

‘Keep fighting’

The final say over Erda’s fate will likely rest with the courts.

Martin, Bird (the council chair) and three other Erda residents filed a petition for relief Monday afternoon in 3rd District Court over the county surveyor’s decision not to approve the city’s boundary map.

Among the points of contention is the hefty fee the surveyor charged to even review the map — $116,250, for a town that has yet to form a tax base. By comparison, when Millcreek incorporated as a city in 2016, Salt Lake County didn’t charge a dime to review the plat map, Mayor Jeff Silvestrini confirmed.

“Why were they not charged anything,” Martin said, “and why are we being charged six figures?”

The Tribune made multiple calls to the surveyor’s office for more information, which were not returned. In the county’s Christmas Eve letter to Erda, however, the surveyor explained his reasoning for the sum.

“The county surveyor may charge and collect a reasonable fee for costs associated with the plat approval process,” the letter says, noting that the county currently charges $300 for plat reviews plus $75 per parcel. “Because of the large number of parcels involved, the fee for this review is $116,250. I do not have the authority to waive or reduce the fee.”

The lawsuit also notes that the lieutenant governor’s office, which conducts final approval of city incorporations, has explained to Houghton, the county surveyor, that Erda is proceeding under 2018 code, not the 2021 code Houghton cited in his letter rejecting split parcels.

The legal complaint notes other questionable moves — for example, the licensed surveyor Erda residents hired to prepare their initial incorporation map in 2018 allegedly began dragging his feet to meet the deadline to prepare a final plat map this month. Apparently that surveyor had also been hired to draft maps for the latest Grantsville annexation carving 8,000 acres out of Erda.

Coombs, the Grantsville attorney, denies the city hired the surveyor.

“Any maps created relative to an annexation request must be prepared and submitted by the applicant,” Coombs said in an email.

Martin, who is 21, said that after serving less than two months in office, he understands why his peers and neighbors become discouraged and disengaged with the political process. But he said he’ll continue to push back and ensure Erda gains more local control.

“I rode bulls and broncs in high school, and I learned you never give up,” he said. “You get bucked off, you get back on and keep fighting.”

Editor’s note This story has been updated to include comments from Grantsville’s city attorney.