Just north of Zion National Park, there is a collection of cabins connected by dirt roads and sheltered by ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees where a small, mostly seasonal community lives around the Kolob Reservoir.
However, a new development under consideration by the Washington County Commission could add over 3,000 campsites and other lodging for travelers and tourists.
Critics say that the “glamping”-style development is taking advantage of zoning intended for traditional campsites and would permanently change the character of the area.
“It was never envisioned...when the terms were created, that there would be a project this size,” said Scott Messel, Washington County Community Development Director.
Residents protest large development
“I don't believe that there’s any possible way that the county could ever approve this project as it is presently constituted,” said Justin Heideman, a St. George real estate lawyer who discovered a notification about the project while turkey hunting on his family’s property.
1,700 wooded acres would be turned into a collection of campsites, wall tents, trailers, and lodges as part of the “Above Zion” project spearheaded by Ian Crowe, a local real estate developer.
Crowe submitted proposals for the project in October 2019, but the notices weren’t publicly posted until a May 12 Washington County Commission meeting.
As soon as other Kolob Mountain locals heard about the proposed development, they began pushing back. A petition against the development was started on Change.org, which as of this publishing has over 30,000 signatures. Posts both for and against the development have proliferated on social media.
Heideman helped launch a Facebook group called Preserve Kolob Mountain and wrote a ten-page legal opinion from his firm, Heideman & Associates, addressing how he believes the Above Zion project would violate county ordinances.
“The purpose behind zoning regulations is to prevent the rights of one property owner from infringing on the rights of other property owners who are in close proximity,” the letter states.
“There have been substantial things we've become aware of since then,” Heideman told the Moab Sun News.
According to Heideman, the Above Zion development couldn’t possibly comply with the rural setbacks required, nor could they possibly get the infrastructure a project of this size would need.
Zoning and Above Zion
For the past couple of years “glamping” type development projects have gained popularity in rural areas across the Southwest as a response to the ever-growing number of visitors to the area. “Glamping” style accommodations combine campsites with a higher-level of amenities not usually associated with traditional camping, like luxury trailers or kitchen and bathroom buildings. (Glamping is a portmanteau of “glamor” and “camping.”)
Washington County has approved glamping-style resorts on lands primarily zoned for open spaces, since campgrounds are a recognized conditional use in these zones. Conditional use permits, sometimes called “special-use permits,” are zoning exceptions that allow a property owner to use their property in a way not otherwise permitted. These exceptions require discretionary approval from the county.
However, the county commission put a six-month moratorium on approving these projects in the spring of 2019, as a proposal for an RV park in nearby Veyo brought attention to how broad the ordinances were at the time.
The commission reported that they realized some developers had managed to work around existing ordinances through the use of conditional use permits, and that density limits and other restrictions would better define the use of open rural and transitional space.
On Sept. 17, the moratorium was lifted and the commission issued revised requirements that rural recreation projects go through a “planned development” checklist, requiring developers to provide more details about their proposed projects.
The day the moratorium expired, Crowe submitted plans for the Above Zion project, claiming his application fit the old guidelines for a conditional use permit. Washington County staff initially denied the application.
Crowe appealed the decision, as technically the new rules had been recommended but not yet officially adopted. His appeal was granted.
Fire, traffic and other concerns
Washington County staff have requested additional information to address the many concerns surrounding the project.
The fire risk is seen as substantial, as the site planned for Above Zion is a steep area covered in ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and Gambel’s oak. There is currently no fire station in the Kolob Reservoir area, the nearest station is an hour away in Hurricane and cell service is nearly non-existent at both the resort and the roads leading to them, making emergency calls difficult.
The application states that no open fires would be permitted, instead Crowe proposed propane fire pits to limit human-caused wildfire risk.
One particular concern to both locals and the county is the potential increase in traffic that could result from the thousands of campsites.
“We've identified that the road can't handle that,” said Heideman. “ There's only two National Park Service Officers assigned to patrol that road at any given time. As a result, it's rare that there's actually law enforcement up at the lake.”
The only road leading from the city of Virgin to the Kolob Reservoir area is the Kolob Terrace Road, a winding two-lane road with steep hills, exposed shoulders and hairpin curves, leading to a fatality in an accident in 2017. Washington County has requested a traffic study before they further consider the project.
In addition to complicated access to emergency services, Above Zion also has to contend with creating utility access to the remote area. Crowe is reportedly in talks with the Washington County Water Conservancy, but has not yet given the county a will-serve letter. According to reporting from Brian Maffly of the Salt Lake Tribune, the Conservancy has expressed trepidation with the current wastewater plan.
“There is insufficient water, we've discovered that they don't have anywhere near the amount of water necessary even at their own stated rates. But quite frankly, those stated rates don't even meet the requirements associated with the US Geological Survey resources,” said Heideman.
With the Above Zion project making its way through the approval process, Crowe continues to develop recreation sites on the land. Recently, he opened a guided "via ferrata," a type of protected ledge walk, on the edge of Kolob Creek bordering Zion National Park. To traverse the route, tourists balance on both natural features and steel rungs above a sheer drop. How Crowe continues to develop his Above Zion property may, similarly, require walking a thin line between county ordinances and adjacent property owners.