Legislature’s overreach in Summit County thwarted by sloppy law writing, Robert Gehrke writes

Dakota Pacific’s condo plan in Kimball Junction has stalled after a judge ruled that it didn’t meet legal muster.

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

An attempt by the Legislature to force Summit County to allow a controversial housing project near Kimball Junction fell apart Thursday, thanks mostly to sloppy wording in the law.

Years ago, county officials inked a deal with a developer to build a tech center off of the busy Kimball Junction freeway ramp. But then the developer sold the property to another group, Dakota Pacific, which wanted to build some 1,100 condo units.

The proposal met with intense opposition from the community over concerns about traffic congestion, school crowding, police and fire service — and, yes, some of it the old-fashioned “not-in-my-backyard” mentality.

In 2022, while the county was in negotiations with Dakota Pacific, the developer hired a well-connected lobbying firm to go to the Legislature and got legislation passed giving the county until the end of the year to approve the project.

Then, at the tail end of the last session, Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, slipped language into a bill that was specifically tailored to give Dakota Pacific what they wanted — permission to develop a housing project adjacent to a transit hub that had submitted a land-use application.

The provision had no public hearings, no public input and no legislative debate. Even the two House members who represent Summit County seemed unaware it was in the bill and voted for the measure.

But proponents of the massive mixed-use development screwed up.

While Dakota Pacific had asked for a zoning change, it had not submitted a land-use application and, as a result, Third District Judge Richard Mrazik ruled Thursday that the law in SB84 does not apply and the project does not have permission to proceed.

“Dakota Pacific’s ham-fisted tactic to subvert the Summit County community and Summit County’s legislative process and instead lobby the Utah Legislature to impair a 15-year-old, carefully negotiated contract and override local land use authority and our community’s right to local self-government has failed,” Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson said in a statement after the judge’s ruling.

In its lawsuit, the county had also argued that the Legislature’s attempt to undo the county’s tech center deal was an unconstitutional interference with its contract, but by finding in the county’s favor on the technical language, Mrazik did not have to address that argument.

Marc Stanworth, CEO of Dakota Pacific Real Estate, said he would have to meet with the company’s legal team before deciding if an appeal would be in order, but said the Legislature’s desire to move the project along was clear.

“I don’t think a reasonable person debates what the intent of the Legislature was,” he said. “It’s very, very unfortunate that it comes down to something like that and that the broader case can’t be heard until that threshold issue is overcome.”

Stanworth said the county had abandoned the tech center idea years ago and was looking for other developers to help realize their plans for Kimball Junction. Dakota Pacific worked with the county, he said, and got most of the council on board, but then a wave of public outcry in 2021 scuttled the process.

Dakota Pacific agreed to scale back the project from 1,100 housing units — plus retail and office space — to 700 units, added more affordable housing and removed a planned hotel, Stanworth said, but still couldn’t reach an agreement.

At that point, they turned to their lobbyists and the Legislature which, in my mind, was exactly the wrong place for this dispute to end up.

The legislators bought the lobbyist’s argument that steamrolling Summit County could alleviate the area’s housing crisis — even though the law only required 10% of the units be affordable housing while the county ordinance would have required 50% for the density Dakota Pacific was seeking. (Stanforth says 50% was never discussed.)

And, of course, the Legislature circumvented the normal process, cut out public input and tried to use sly, backdoor tactics to brazenly usurp the notion of local control.

It wasn’t their first attempt at using a sneaky power grab to run roughshod over the will of local communities — and you can bet it won’t be their last. Fortunately, this time they got sloppy and it came back to bite them in the end.