Empire Pass left in limbo | ParkRecord.com

Empire Pass left in limbo

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

Two days of intense debate unfolded on Wednesday and Thursday between City Hall and the Empire Pass developers, with the two sides failing to reach an accord that allows Talisker Deer Valley to push forward unhindered.

It appears that an agreement will be delayed until at least Feb. 28, the date of the next City Council meeting. In the meantime, the elected officials will prepare to rule on the dispute, which became publicized early in the week and brought a small crowd to a Planning Commission meeting.

City Hall claims the developers have not built enough work force housing in Empire Pass, which is under construction on the slopes of Deer Valley. Officials stopped issuing building permits based on the lack of worker housing and have said they will not allow units in Empire Pass to open once the number reaches 150.

The City Council on Thursday discussed the standoff, and the city’s Planning Commission spent time the day before debating Empire Pass. The elected officials, in a unanimous vote, decided to review an agreement the lower panel crafted on Wednesday.

The Planning Commissioners held a lengthy discussion before indicating they want the developer to put up a financial guarantee of almost $2.2 million that the worker housing would be built. The commissioners also wanted a few more units of workforce housing constructed on a condensed timeline.

The developers have put up five work force units, a third of what is required so far. The requirement is based on the number of regularly priced units that have been built, City Hall says.

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The City Council rarely uses its authority to review decisions made by the lower panel, but its desire to do so in the Empire Pass case is not a surprise. The work force housing dispute is a high-stakes affair, with the ramifications of the decision reaching through Empire Pass, the largest project under development in the city.

City Councilman Jim Hier, a former Planning Commissioner, said he is disappointed with what transpired at Empire Pass, and Mayor Dana Williams said the developers realized for a year the work force housing needed to be built on a timeline.

The Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday was tense, with one member of the panel taking an especially hardline stance. Planning Commissioner Rory Murphy, a developer who spent much of his Park City career on Empire Pass but is no longer involved with the project, told the developers they should have realized the work force housing was required on a timeline.

"You have known about this for nine years," Murphy told the Talisker side.

David Smith, the Talisker attorney who leads the company’s negotiations with City Hall, replied that Talisker was not involved until 2003, when it took over United Park City Mines, Murphy’s former employer. Smith said it then took a couple years to prepare for the talks with the city about the project.

"It’s still a lengthy period of time," Murphy responded.

Planning Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of a change to a longstanding report outlining the work force housing part of Empire Pass. Murphy dissented. The change includes the almost $2.2 million guarantee for the housing.

Commissioners and the Empire Pass side addressed numerous issues beforehand, including the details of the financial guarantee, and one of the commissioners, Charlie Wintzer, said he was worried about approving a deal that had been drafted just before the meeting.

Wintzer said he hoped the developers did not return to the Planning Commission with a similar predicament later. "This is it," agreed Evan Russack, another Planning Commissioner.

Crowd members, many appearing to have business interests hinging on the Empire Pass decision, urgently whispered between themselves as the Planning Commission held its discussion.

Thomas Bennett, an attorney who represents some development interests in Empire Pass, monitored the Planning Commission proceedings, saying in an interview the developers he represents will meet their contract obligations.

He said the dispute could hurt the developers eventually, though.

"So far, it hasn’t been a crisis. There’s been a little bit of wiggle room," Bennett said. "That’s running out."