How the Legislature is steamrolling residents to help a well-connected developer. Robert Gehrke has the story.

A Summit County council member says the Legislature should be “ashamed” of green-lighting major development over objections from local residents.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The Utah Legislature is forcing Summit County to approve a major development near Kimball Junction that residents have fought against for years — and the county is livid.

“This horrible assault on local communities’ rights of self-determination is a blemish upon fair, open and transparent government,” county council chair Roger Armstrong said after the bill’s passage. “The Utah Legislature should be ashamed.”

The language approving the project — pushed by Paradise Republican Rep. Casey Snider — was slipped into Senate Bill 84 at the last minute, enabling it to pass both the House and Senate without a hearing or any public input on the provision. The addition of the language was never mentioned or discussed in the four-minute House debate and both of the representatives for Summit County — Reps. Kera Birkeland and Mike Kohler — voted for the measure.

The bill gives Dakota Pacific Real Estate the right to build 39 units of residential housing per acre on a parcel of land near the busy Kimball Junction.

Since 2008, the county had wanted to build a tech campus on the site and had signed a development agreement with the previous owner. In 2018, Dakota Pacific bought the property and sought approval for a mixed-use development with commercial space and some 1,100 condo units.

The county’s planning commission opposed the plan contending it would exacerbate traffic woes and strain schools and emergency services. Residents, too, were adamantly opposed with some 900 residents turning out in person and remotely to give the council an earful of their concerns.

The county and developer tried to negotiate a compromise, but last year Dakota Pacific went to the Legislature to try to ram through approval of the development. At the last minute, lawmakers opted to give the county another year to seek approval of a “Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zone” — a provision of law that gives tax credits to developments set up around transit hubs.

When the county submitted its required moderate-income housing plan, though, it described how it planned to seek approval of the HTRZ, but did not formally apply.

So the Legislature deemed Summit County to be out of compliance, and the language Snider inserted into the bill said developers in non-compliant counties automatically are granted permission to build up to 39 units per acre — with 10% of the units dedicated as affordable housing (those that make less than $93,000 in the county).

Summit County is the only jurisdiction in the state impacted by the laser-focused wording. Residents who have been fighting the development aren’t pleased.

“Dakota Pacific has a hold [on the Legislature] through its very skilled lobbyists,” said Gary Peacock, an opponent of the development.

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The Dakota Pacific team includes Casey Hill, one of the most connected lobbyists at the Capitol.

They have also hired Dan Hemmert, who, until the end of last year, oversaw the transit zone development program as head of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. He registered to lobby for Dakota Pacific on Jan. 18, the second day of the legislative session and just a few weeks after leaving the governor’s office.

A 2014 executive order issued by then-Gov. Gary Herbert aimed to close the revolving door, prohibiting a member of the governor’s administration from lobbying the executive branch for two years after stepping down, but does not limit lobbying the Legislature. Former legislators cannot lobby the Legislature for one year, but Hemmert left his legislative seat to join the Cox administration in 2021.

Hemmert had previously owned a financial stake in the Dakota Pacific project, but, he’s said, the partners in the project bought him out before he went to work for the Cox administration.

“These guys have the [legislative] leadership locked up and it’s very clear,” Peacock said. “Dakota Pacific has the Legislature in its pocket. It’s corrupt and there is ineptitude.”

In his statement, council chair Armstrong is appealing to the governor to veto the bill when it reaches his desk.

“We hope that Governor Cox will recognize the danger of destroying local control, even in matters where the legislature has strong feelings for supporting an applicant,” he said.

I doubt this will be the issue where Cox decides to take a stand.

But this is exactly the kind of antics we’ve come to expect from the Legislature: Lip service is paid to local decision-making, until the locals cross a wealthy special interest — particularly developers — with hot-shot lobbyists.

Then the process gets rigged, public comment shut down and local residents and their elected officials have special deals jammed down their throats.

It’s not how the process is supposed to work, but it’s the reality of how this Legislature works.