Perched on the northern edge of this large tract are three modest miners' houses that look much as they did in tax photos from the first half of the 20th century. Over the years, many passers-by have wondered why this prime piece of real estate, surrounded by large homes and condominiums just off Deer Valley Drive, still looks like a throwback to a time before skiers discovered Park City.
Almost a century ago, a 41-year-old English-born miner named William Wood bought four small houses along what was then called Deer Valley Road in Park City. He moved into one house with his family and rented out the others.
Wood, who had chronic silicosis, a common affliction among hard-rock miners, died in 1920 after catching pneumonia, according to his obituary in The Park Record. Ownership of the houses passed to his widow, Fanny, then to her children, and finally to her only grandson.
"My family moved into those homes in 1914," says 79-year-old Richard Dennis, the grandson of Fanny Wood and her second husband. "That's how long they've been in the family."
Dennis was born in one of the houses in November 1932. He was raised by his mother, Gladys Dennis, after his father died in a cave-in at the Park City Consolidated Mine in September 1935.
In 2005, Richard Dennis, who now lives in Salt Lake City, sold one of the four a charming board-and-batten cabin on the corner of Deer Valley Drive and Sunnyside Drive. But the other three houses, located on what is now Rossie Hill Drive, are another story.
Dennis says it wasn't until Park City's ski-resort renaissance was well underway that he was shocked to find out his family never held the title to the land underneath the three houses. "When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents, they never knew," he says. "They paid the taxes and that was it."
According to Mike Nelson, assistant field manager in the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM's) Salt Lake City office, the three houses were built on "original vacant public land." That land was not part of the 120 acres covering Old Town Park City included in a patent from the U.S. Land Office in 1874.
The three houses only one of which is currently occupied are still on BLM land. Dennis says he still pays taxes every year. "I've been paying anything that Summit County has been assessing me." But he now understands that they're on just the homes, not the land.
In an attempt to clear the title, Dennis says he hired an attorney about three or four years ago and filed with the BLM.
"I'm aware that he's filed an application," Nelson says. "We just haven't had time to act on it yet."
Richard Dennis may be waiting for a while, if the experience of longtime Parkites Bill and Julie Bertagnole is any indication.
Up the hill, adjoining the southwest corner of Dennis's property, is another century-old miner's cabin now owned by the Bertagnoles. As Bill Bertagnole remembers it, he started talking to an old miner and his wife about buying the cabin in 1979.
"He died in the middle of this thing and his wife turned over a quit-claim deed to me," Bertagnole says. "I never knew it was BLM ground until 1983 when the mining company and the BLM both told me to get off."
The mining company?
Bertagnole discovered that not only was his house on BLM ground but United Park City Mines (UPCM) also had inherited, from a predecessor company, what is called an "unpatented" claim to the mineral rights on the property.
"I don't know how many people I've asked what an unpatented mining claim is, but nobody has been able to give me an answer."
Maybe he didn't ask the BLM's Mike Nelson.
"Under the 1872 Mining Law, people can file a claim on any unreserved public land, which establishes a right to mine," Nelson explains. By regularly paying fees to the federal government, he says, you can maintain that claim indefinitely.
The mining company never filed a plan to develop the property and never received a patent conveying the land from the government, Nelson says, so the mining claim is considered "unpatented." However, because UPCM continued to pay the fees on the claim, Talisker Corporation, which acquired UPCM in 2003, also has an interest in the land under Bertagnole's house.
Settling the mining claim to the land involved a marathon session with Talisker's attorneys and cost him $25,000, Bertagnole says.
Dennis, like Bertagnole, may also face negotiations with Talisker. He says he's aware the issue could crop up later.
"I haven't talked to Talisker," Dennis says. "Talisker has the underground rights. What I'm going for with the BLM is the surface rights."
Talisker was contacted by The Park Record but did not provide a comment for this story.
In the meantime, with the help of former Park City Attorney Jim Carter, Bertagnole appealed the government's attempt to evict him and won the right to buy the property from the BLM, he says. He filed an application with the local BLM office. And waited. And waited.
Today, almost 30 years after first learning of the ownership problems, Bertagnole still doesn't have title to the land. "I think it's very close, but I've been saying that for so long that I don't believe myself."
Mike Nelson of the BLM says he also hopes they're getting close. "There's a few title issues related to some existing (utility) rights of way crossing the property."
Dave Watson, a BLM realty specialist, agrees with Bertagnole that the case has gone on way too long. "The reason it went on forever was because of this mine claim. We just couldn't move forward until the mining-claim issue was resolved."
Watson also acknowledges that these types of cases "are very low priority in our overall workload, and we're always short-staffed."
Bertagnole says he has no illusions about trying to save the old house. It was seriously damaged in a fire apparently caused by a renter's heat lamp and was condemned by Ron Ivie, then Park City's chief building official. "I would love to see it torn down and gone," he says.
He may not get much of an argument from the Utah State Historical Society. A survey by its Historic Preservation Office describes the house as "non-contributing" and concludes that it is not eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
On the other hand, the three houses owned by Richard Dennis have caught the eye of preservationists. In 1984, all three were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the "Park City Mining Boom Era Residences Thematic District." The Preservation Office survey says all three appear to have been built in the last decade of the 19th century and "significantly contribute to the character of the residential area."
The three houses were also given "Landmark" status, the higher of two possible designations, on Park City's 2008 Historic Sites Inventory, which was compiled by Dina Blaes, a preservation consultant with Preservation Solutions, a Salt Lake City company.
Blaes notes that Park City ordinances have something to say about the future of the three houses. "If he came in and requested that they be demolished, he'd have to go through the certificate of appropriateness for demolition (process)."
Park City, like many other cities across the United States, can deny demolition of historic homes except in cases of economic hardship or certain extenuating circumstances such as road relocation, Blaes says.
Dennis says it's too early to make predictions about the future of the property. "I don't know what I'm going to do with it," he says. "I've got to wait 'til I get the title before I decide."