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Developers pressed for Montage

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

By Jan. 29, Talisker was frustrated.

The Empire Pass developer had negotiated with City Hall for more than a year and that day, a Monday, one of its executives fired off a letter to City Manager Tom Bakaly.

David Smith, a senior vice president and the lead attorney for Talisker Deer Valley, the developer, told the city manager, on company letterhead, his firm needed the Park City Council to vote on whether it would allow the Montage hotel to be built in the project.

The deadline Smith outlined in the letter: Feb. 1. That is the date the City Council, which also received the letter, voted 5-0 on an agreement that allows the Montage to proceed. It is envisioned as a swanky hotel that will be among Park City’s ritziest places to stay.

The one-page letter, which was also sent to Mayor Dana Williams, the City Council and four key City Hall staffers, illustrates some of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that marked the last days of the talks about the Montage.

"Because Montage is on the verge of losing its ’07 construction season given timing and seasonal building constraints, Montage has advised us they will have to reallocate their resources after February 1st if we don’t get through the approvals scheduled for that date," Smith says in the letter.

The sides were in talks since 2005 about the Montage, which the developers plan to build near Deer Valley Resort’s Empire lodge, and the discussions were wide ranging, touching on, at various points, diverse topics like the potential of an Old Town-Deer Valley gondola, a park-and-ride lot and traffic on the Mine Road, the most direct route between Empire Pass and Old Town. There was little interest from regular Parkites and the meetings typically drew Talisker’s team, officials from Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort and others with interests tied to the negotiations.

City Hall saw the negotiations as a chance to rework the landmark 1990s deal in which Park City agreed to annex the Empire Pass land and set a ceiling on development on the prized ground. That agreement remains the pivotal development approval in Park City since Deer Valley’s overall plan was OK’d years ago, before watchdogs mobilized much later, becoming more influential in Park City and surrounding Summit County.

Talisker needed the local government’s approval before it could pursue the Montage. The 1990s agreement did not allow a project like the Montage, forcing Talisker into the negotiations.

In the final weeks, though, the talks became tangled in details about the Judge Tunnel, an important drinking-water source for Park City that burrows beneath the ground under the developer’s land. Suddenly there were late-hour negotiations about the tunnel, with the talks centered on which side would take responsibility for its long-term operation.

There were hesitations on both sides as the developers, not wanting the Judge Tunnel talks to delay the approvals needed for the Montage, tried to separate the two issues. Two weeks after the Feb. 1 vote, the City Councilors approved a water deal with the developers. The later vote was 3-2, with Jim Hier, Joe Kernan and Roger Harlan casting ‘Yea’ votes and Marianne Cone and Candy Erickson in the minority.

"The outcome of holding up Montage because of an unrelated water issue is that the Montage will go away and Talisker will simply proceed with its original plan for condos rather than a fantastic hotel, spa and conference facility that is a perfect fit . . . ," Smith writes in the letter.

He boasts of the benefits Talisker would provide Park City if the deal was approved: a park-and-ride lot, which will be built at Quinn’s Junction, the permanent preservation as open space of 2,800 acres of land at Park City Mountain Resort, more affordable housing and between $1.3 million and $1.9 million each year in extra revenues to City Hall.

"It would be a travesty to see everything evaporate at this late date, and we hope the City seriously considers Talisker’s proposed solution for the last remaining issue so this $300 Million opportunity does not go to some other mountain resort community," Smith says.

Smith did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment.

But Williams, whose political career is largely linked to his role as the leader of Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth during the period the development watchdog challenged Empire Pass, then called Flagstaff, says the elected officials were not influenced by the Smith letter.

Williams says the City Councilors had agreed to many of the points in the deal but wanted the water details solved. That, Williams says, delayed the vote for a few weeks. Williams says the two sides agreed City Hall is not the proper authority to make determinations about the Judge Tunnel, leaving those decisions to, perhaps, state or federal regulators or the courts.

"Those kinds of statements were being made for months — that we could potentially lose the Montage if we don’t get a decision going on these other things," Williams says, commenting about the deadline Talisker set for a vote. "You take those things with a grain of salt in terms of ‘Is it puffery?’ ‘Is it worth calling the bluff on that?’"


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