Thousands of acres of land along the largely undeveloped Highway 191 corridor north of Moab are owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, a state entity tasked with generating revenue from its lands to benefit educational and public institutions in Utah.

The Grand County Planning Commission has been working on a plan to guide future development in the area, but SITLA land doesn’t fall under county jurisdiction.

SITLA representatives shared preliminary plans for a housing development for one of these properties at a Jan. 25 Planning Commission meeting. Those plans clash with what Grand County residents want to see in the area, based on recent public surveys.

Planning for change

Highway 191 ushers motorists from the open desert flats along Interstate 70 to the foot of the impressive red sandstone cliffs that frame the entrance to the Moab Valley. Some developments exist in the area: a gas station, campgrounds, a dinosaur museum, and railroad tracks that carry uranium tailings from the old Atlas Mill to a containment site. However, the majority of the area is dominated by desert brush and Moab’s colorful geology.

The Grand County Planning Commission undertook the Small Area Plan beginning in the summer of 2020 to guide development along the north Highway 191 corridor. Planning Commission Chair Emily Campbell said at the time that the Planning Commission was receiving a lot of development applications for the area and that an overall framework would help both landowners and elected officials make decisions.

Shaping the plan involved gathering public input through surveys, which were completed by over 800 participants, and joint workshops with the County Commission. [See “Planning the ‘Gateway to Moab,’” July 23, 2020 edition. -ed.]

Survey results showed that the public prefers minimal development in the area, with an emphasis on preserving the viewshed and a preference for low impact services and amenities that facilitate outdoor recreation. Public opinion was strongly against allowing hotels, concentrated or commercial development, and housing in the area.

The Small Area Plan was passed on Jan. 5 in the form of a series of land use code changes, including a “Scenic Resource Protection” overlay and a preference for the “Resort Special” zone in rezone requests.

Arches-area Housing Project

SITLA owns about 6% of all the land within Utah’s borders, and the agency’s mission is to generate revenues from those lands—through mining, oil and gas extraction, or real estate and surface development—for 12 state institutions devoted to higher or special education, or to the public.

SITLA has preliminary designs for a high-end housing development on a 1,464-acre parcel east of Highway 191, just across from the turnoff for Highway 313, and bounded by Arches National Park on the east.

County officials are familiar with Landmark Design, the company that drafted the designs. Landmark was also employed by San Juan County to draft plans for development in Spanish Valley in 2017 and has participated in past Grand County land use discussions.

Mark Vlasic, owner of Landmark Design, summarized three housing concepts for the SITLA parcel in a Jan. 25 Planning Commission meeting.

The first proposal is for a “tourism hub or residential village,” which would include a commercial node adjacent to the highway with community services, leading east to a “transition zone” that would lead to a “clustered mix” of housing types and densities.

The second concept, called a “gateway resort/residential village,” would be similar to the first concept but with less commercial use.

The third concept, called a “hidden residential village,” would focus on screening the housing development from the highway. Each of the concepts focuses on a residential element.

Plans are still in the initial stages, with no details confirmed.

“Honestly, we don’t have immediate development plans for this parcel. We recognize that water and infrastructure is a big concern, there’s going to be years to figure that out,” SITLA Project Manager Troy Herold said at the meeting.

However, Herold said that he was bringing it before county officials to get their feedback on the different options.

“It’s a gorgeous piece of property,” Herold said. “I’ve always pictured extremely low density, frankly very high-end development.”

Herold described one- to two-acre lots with single-family, eco-friendly homes designed to blend in with the landscape, sited to minimize their impact on views from Arches National Park, and meeting all county standards for dark sky lighting.

The homes, he imagined, would have multimillion-dollar values. Even if those homes took decades to sell, Herold said that was fine with SITLA.

“We’re long-term landowners,” he said.

"Only those who come in can afford it, and those who are already here can't"

After SITLA’s presentation, Planning Commission Chair Emily Campbell noted her concern that high-end development of the type SITLA proposed could negatively impact county residents.

She said the county already struggles with a lack of affordable housing and that high-end development would bump up average home prices throughout the county. Also, she said that the proposed multi-million-dollar homes would only be attainable to people from outside Grand County—further marginalizing people who live and work in the county full-time.

These concerns prompted some discussion of including more attainable housing units in the development concept. Vlasic suggested ADUs as an option. However, it’s unclear whether such an approach would be financially viable.

Campbell noted the potential pitfall of creating substandard housing just to check the box of including affordable units.

“Ideally, we don’t create such an extreme division where ‘affordable housing’ means a trailer in a culvert and a single-family home means a million-dollar home with a boat shed,” she said.

Other high-end second homes in the county have already been causing a gap in the local housing market, Campbell said.

“It’s creating an impact where only those who come in can afford it, and those who are already here can’t,” said Campbell. “It’s hollowing out our economy, it’s hollowing out our community. The divisiveness over these projects goes beyond the environmental impact.”

The environmental impact to the area is no small consideration either, as recent research on groundwater availability has produced alarming findings. Not only is water in limited supply throughout the valley, but there is currently no existing infrastructure to get water to the SITLA parcel.

Planning Commissioner Josie Kovash brought up the problem of getting water to the site, which Herold noted could be a deal-breaker for the project.

“I have not even looked at the water question,” Herold said in response. “If we’re not able to get the infrastructure to this area in some fashion that’s safe, then obviously we wouldn’t develop it.”

Commissioners also expressed concerns about damaging vistas from popular spots within Arches National Park, such as Devil’s Garden. The SITLA parcel is also near the proposed site of Utahraptor State Park, which would be located on state lands just to the north.

Planning Commissioner Gerrish Willis asked Herold if SITLA would respect the county’s zoning and take into account the county’s position on any proposed development, referencing other controversial projects on SITLA property like the Lionsback Resort near the Sand Flats Recreation Area.

“Will SITLA even ask for a rezone, or will you just develop the land regardless of what the county thinks its authority is?” Willis asked.

“My understanding is we do have a state land use exemption,” said Herold, acknowledging that SITLA is not required to respect local government ordinances. However, he said SITLA would try to follow normal county procedures for development.

“Our goal is always to work with the local communities,” said Herold. “We don’t want to try and force something on to the local community. And that’s the case here.” He went on to say,

“If thirty years from now we came to an impasse and we were ready to develop something here, then maybe that would be a different story.”

The Lionsback Resort, which is now under construction, was the subject of years of contention. At one point, community members sued over an illegal agreement between Moab City, the developers, and SITLA. The agreement was invalidated in court in 2020. [See “Lionsback deal violated Moab law: Judge rules SITLA, City Council contract can’t avert public hearings” in the Jan. 30, 2020 edition. -ed.]

Planning Commissioners pointed out that SITLA’s proposal conflicts with the public’s desires for the area.

The proposal “does feel very opposite of what the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Grand County has been around what they want to see in this area,” said Kovash.

“The community very, very explicitly made a statement that this is not an area where we want to see increased development,” Campbell agreed.

She acknowledged that SITLA has a mandate to profit from their lands, but she contended that the mission should not come at a cost to the surrounding community.

“Grand County shouldn’t be funding the school systems of Provo and Salt Lake and wherever else at the expense of our community,” she said. “Sustainability goes beyond environmental sustainability. That thinking about the cost to our community should be considered.”

The meeting ended on a cordial note, with commissioners thanking SITLA for their early communication efforts and Herold promising to remain open to further discussion.

“We try and do the right things,” Herold said of SITLA. “We’re not just greedy land developers all over… We do search for ways we can get revenue off of our properties to support our mission and still do the right things.”

The Grand County Planning Commission meets on the second and fourth Monday of every month at 4 p.m. Meetings are streamed online on the Grand County Utah Government Youtube channel. Schedules, agendas and opportunities for public comment can be found at www.grandcountyutah.net.