Grand County Council tackled several contentious topics at their regular meeting on July 7. In addition to an ordinance requiring the use of masks in shared public spaces, a letter opposing the Bureau of Land Management’s September oil and gas lease sale was approved and the council heard concerns about homelessness in Moab.
Oil & gas lease
A controversial statewide BLM oil and gas lease sale scheduled for September includes an unusually vast area up for auction, including over 80,000 acres in the Moab area close to national and state parks. [see “Thousands of acres in Moab area up for oil & gas lease” in the June 11 edition of the Moab Sun News].
The Grand County Council had requested to be a cooperating agency with the BLM, which would have allowed them the opportunity to offer input to the federal agency throughout the process. That request was denied.
At the council meeting, Councilmember Evan Clapper introduced a letter he drafted to be submitted to the BLM during the public comment period, asking that the parcels nominated for the September sale that lie within Grand County be removed.
The letter states that the sale, as proposed, “threatens the core of our tourism economy by locking in long term oil and gas leases on and around popular recreation areas that are vital to our local economy.”
Councilmember Curtis Wells spoke at length on the issue, expressing discomfort with taking what he feels is a blanket anti-development stance.
Wells agreed that the process was unfortunate and wished the county had been allowed more specific and thorough input, but he also disagreed that outdoor recreation and natural resource development are inherently antithetical.
“I grew up recreating in this area before it was developed for oil and gas, spent a lot of time hiking and hunting in this area,” he said. “Watching the area change is difficult.”
However, Wells said he was more disturbed by the increase in tourism and crowding than by natural resource development impacts, and he had spoken to constituents with the same view.
“I just don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t think it’s honest and good practice for Grand County to present such a one-sided account of this land use,” Wells said.
Wells also noted that royalties from oil and gas development fund community assets like the Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center as well as grants and loans from the state Community Impact Board.
Clapper reminded the council that currently, those royalty fees are drastically reduced under provisions in the CARES Act that grant economic relief to energy development companies.
Council chair Mary McGann emphasized that point, saying, “I am not opposed to having some oil and gas development in Grand County, in fact I think it would be great. But... I don’t think it’s the time to sell it with the royalties down and the price of oil down.”
The letter was approved 5-2, with councilmembers Rory Paxman and Wells in opposition.
Homelessness in Grand County
Multicultural Center Director Rhiana Medina and Executive Director of Moab Solutions Sara Melnicoff updated the council on the state of homelessness in the Moab community. Medina said her nonprofit organization has seen a 64% increase in clients seeking homelessness services in the past six months over the previous six months.
“It’s really challenging because we don’t have a shelter to know where to divert people to,” Medina said.
Melnicoff has worked with the homeless in Moab for over a decade through Moab Solutions, a nonprofit she founded. She described a recent incident in which Moab Police asked her to come to St. Francis Episcopal Church where a fire was nearly started in a nearby homeless encampment. Melnicoff said she had to rent a storage unit to store all the stuff she found in the camp.
Melnicoff and Medina said they had the support of local law enforcement in the concept of a “safe camp” for chronically homeless people, that would be heavily monitored and be supplied with a portable toilet, trash and recycling, and would facilitate outreach from groups like Moab Solutions and the Multicultural Center.
“Until we can find a better solution, at least offering a safe place could avert hazardous incidents like fires, or people dying of heatstroke,” said Melnicoff.
Also of note
It seems a meeting can’t go by without a reminder of the deep impacts the coronavirus pandemic has had on local government. County Administrator Chris Baird reported to the council that transient room taxes collected this April were just 7% of what they were in the same month of 2019.
“That’s kind of what we expected, because we were entirely shut down,” Baird said. “We’re probably going to have to rethink our contributions to other entities.”
Baird also informed the council that two Grand County employees had tested positive for COVID-19.
“As far as I know, no other Grand County employees were infected or transmitted,” Baird assured the councilmembers, noting that potentially exposed employees had taken tests that came back negative, and that public health officials had followed up on the known cases with contact tracing.
“As far as I can tell, we’re in the clear with regard to any further transmission from those cases,” Baird said.
The Grand County Council meets every first and third Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m. Meeting agendas, schedules and instructions on how to participate can be found at www.grandcountyutah.net/134/County-Council