Christopher Skarda at Grand County Council meeting

Christopher Skarda listens to Grand County Council concerns about his request for a zoning change to a property at the junction of U.S. Route 191 and Utah State Route 313 on Sept. 3. [Photo by Maggie McGuire / Moab Sun News]

After more than a decade of discussion, groundbreaking is in sight for Moab’s new regional college facilities. The only problem: a funding shortfall of $500,000 dollars.

A group of Utah State University officials brought the issue to the Sept. 3 meeting of the Grand County Council, along with Utah State Representatives Carl Albrecht and Val Potter.

Estimated construction costs for the planned USU project, which will include extension campus facilities, are projected to top 1.5 million dollars.

“Representative Albrecht went to the mat and really did a tremendous job of getting us a million dollars from the state, said Ken White, vice president of the USU extension.

“We're here to see whether there might be any possibility or desire on the part of the council to be able to help us make up that gap,” said White, “so that we can at least ensure that we have the best facilities extension facilities that we can get.”

The groundbreaking date for the building is expected to be next spring, with classes beginning on the campus in the fall of 2021.

USU’s regional campuses have changed over time. Originally founded to provide research to rural farmers, they now provide academic programming aimed at a college degree.

University officials emphasized the important benefits of housing the academic college offices along with community-oriented extension campus services to Grand County residents.

“Most USU extension offices are housed within the regional county building,” White said. “Grand County will become the second county that has this kind of an innovative model”

The existing USU-Moab campus is housed in a retrofitted office building. The new campus is designed to support new programs based on regional needs.

“We’ve planned a STEM makerspace now that's a great opportunity for people to figure out that they have a passion for that and they actually can do things that they may never envisioned that they could do on their own,” White said, adding that plans also included a full industrial kitchen and accessible meeting rooms.

Lianna Etchberger, associate vice president, agreed that the extension services are valuable to local community members, not just college attendees.

“It's not just academic credit courses. It’s helping [the community with] their taxes, offering parenting classes, really the kind of practical stuff that helps that that benefit the community,” she said.

“Our academic piece and our extension piece,” Etchberger said, “have similar missions: we are here in this community to help and benefit our community.”

Grand County council members were supportive of the project while being cautious about further financial obligations.

“We’re coming up on our budget season,” said council member Jaylyn Hawks, “and I'm afraid it's gonna be a brutal battle. I'd like to get creative in our thinking on how to fund this, but I am committed to making it happen.”

Council member Curtis Wells emphasized that he believed the council should reaffirm their support for the project.

“Grand County has a responsibility and a partnership with the Extension and we’ve got to get to the point that we're going to make this a clear priority,” he said, “and now's the time to have that discussion.”

Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine appeared before the council, to “reiterate my office's support for USU-Moab and the campus development efforts that are underway,” he said.

“[This development] is basically at the cornerstone of many of our economic development and diversification efforts,” Levine said, pointing out that the project was very close to being a reality.

“We are so much closer to the fundraising finish line than I think most of the community acknowledges,” he said, referring to the $500,000 funding shortfall.

Council member Mary McGann reported efforts to raise funds through private donations, expressing optimism that the funding shortfall would be addressed well before the projected spring groundbreaking.

“We're all excited for it,” said council chair Evan Clapper. “Our budget advisory board is going to be meeting in these next couple months and, hopefully, we'll have a clear plan on how to get us over the finish line.”

Plans for the USU-Moab campus can be viewed at moab.usu.edu/newcampus/

PROPOSED DEVELOPMENT ALONG 191

The county council heard many requests for various properties to be rezoned, but a particular proposal garnered comment.

The owners of 24 acres at the juncture of U.S. Route 191 and Utah State Route 313 applied to rezone the property from range-grazing to a business-commercial type zone.

“Our goal is to establish some restaurants and housing that will cater to visitors and also not distract from the beauty of the area,” said Christopher Skarda, who has applied for the rezone along with his brother, Michael.

“The existing restaurant options there are very limited. We feel like this spot is appropriate for highway commercial,” he said.

Building plans have not been reviewed or approved but, as Zacharia Levine noted, any conversation about development should stay separate from the proposal to rezone the property.

“When you apply a zone district to a parcel, you're not approving a development proposal,” he said, pointing out that there was be no obligation for applicants to follow their own plans.

That possibility clearly troubled some community members who attended the meeting to speak against the zoning change.

“Once that zone change happens, anything can happen in that area. They're saying restaurants right now, but there's no promise that this proposal is going to be what we see,” local resident Liz Thomas said.

“We're talking about rezoning 24 acres to highway-commercial: the most permissive zoning in the county. That does not seem like a very good idea,” said Kevin Walker, a member of the Grand County Planning Commission.

“Here, the stakes are extremely high,” Walker said. “This area is the gateway to our community. I think it deserves some planning.”

Public comment on the proposed zoning change will remain open until Sept. 11. Comments can be submitted at www.grandcountyutah.net.