How many millions might a Treasure buyout cost, and would voters say ‘Yes?’ |

How many millions might a Treasure buyout cost, and would voters say ‘Yes?’

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

One day Park City voters might be faced with a ballot question that reads something like this: "Shall Park City, Utah be authorized to issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $40 million to acquire and forever preserve the park and recreational land commonly known as the Treasure parcel?"

Or could the figure be $30 million. Perhaps it could be $50 million.

Or more. Or less.

Nobody can say for certain what price tag might someday be attached to the Sweeney family’s Treasure acreage on a hillside overlooking Old Town. But it seems top-ranking City Hall officials are preparing to engage the Sweeneys in what would be some of the highest-stakes conservation negotiations ever undertaken by Park City.

Mayor Dana Williams and the Park City Council are considering a procedural change to the way some development-related matters are considered. Doing so would allow the elected officials to appoint a hearing officer to handle certain appeals of development decisions. If the mayor and City Council did not hear those appeals, they would be free to discuss alternatives with developers, such as purchasing land to preserve as open space or paying a developer in exchange for reducing the size of a project.

City Hall staffers offered the procedural change with a goal of a Treasure breakthrough. The Sweeneys have recently indicated they would be willing to start talking with city officials about a conservation deal for the land now under consideration for approximately 1 million square feet of development.

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Should Williams and the City Councilors eventually negotiate a deal to conserve all or some of the Treasure land, City Hall would probably need to raise millions of dollars to pay the Sweeneys. There is no money left, though, from three conservation bonds Park City voters passed starting in 1998. They totaled $40 million — two $10 million ballot measures and one for $20 million — and voters approved each of them by wide margins. The $40 million bought prime pieces of land along the entryways and elsewhere, and people in Park City have generally seemed pleased with the way the voter-authorized money was spent.

It is unclear whether voters will be as supportive as they were in the three previous bond elections if they are asked to approve a ballot measure with the money earmarked for Treasure. If there are successful negotiations between City Hall and the Sweeneys in the coming months, it is conceivable that a bond could be on the ballot as early as Election Day in November.

The other conservation bonds were passed during much better economic times, and property owners in the city are still paying them off. A Treasure bond would likely be structured differently than the earlier ones in that the people might be voting on a bond measure tied to a designated property. The others ones were vaguely worded to allow City Hall to pursue conservation deals across the city and along the entryways, essentially continuing a strategy that dated to the early years of the local conservation program.

Mayor Dana Williams says it is a "little premature to be discussing that" when talking about the idea of a Treasure-related conservation bond. He says there could be other tactics to protect some of the Treasure land, perhaps through what is known as the transfer of development rights. Under those agreements, a landowner shifts a project to another piece of ground, with there normally being a financial inducement for the owner. He also says more research is needed into the current iteration of Treasure and its adherence to a broader City Hall approval dating to the 1980s for development on the Sweeney land.

"An open space bond probably could not get rid of all the vesting," Williams says, employing a term that attorneys use to describe previously approved development rights such as those held by the Sweeneys since the 1980s.

One scenario, as described by the mayor, calls for some of the development rights the Sweeneys hold being transferred to another piece of ground and monies from a conservation bond being put toward preserving the rest of the land. He says a bond would need to be the largest ever placed on a ballot by City Hall. Maybe, the mayor says, voters would be asked to approve a bond more valuable than the previous three combined.

Williams said he would accept a spot on City Hall’s negotiating team should the procedural change be approved. The elected officials, who seem supportive, are scheduled to vote on the procedural change as early as April 15. The Planning Commission made a favorable recommendation.

Cheryl Fox, who heads the Summit Land Conservancy, a not-for-profit group that works closely with City Hall on its conservation program, says she would like her organization involved with talks between the municipal government and the Sweeneys about a deal to protect the Treasure land.

Fox says the talks need to be sensitive to the economic conditions. The earlier ballot measures passed as Park City was enjoying headier times. She says Parkites, though, continue to desire land be set aside from development.

"I don’t think the people’s desire to protect the open spaces we cherish has changed at all," Fox says, adding that officials need to be "very sensitive" to the economy’s effects on Parkites.

John Stafsholt, one of the key members of a Treasure opposition group known as the Treasure Hill Impact Neighborhood Coalition, says a $40 million ballot measure could pass if the figure was the price the Sweeneys would accept for a buyout of all of the Treasure development rights. He bases the $40 million on the sum of the previous bonds.

Stafsholt, who unsuccessfully campaigned for a City Council seat last year, says Parkites he spoke to who brought up Treasure during the election season wanted the scope of the project reduced or the development rights shifted elsewhere.

"We have bonded for $40 million, total, in the past and had quite a bit of support," Stafsholt said.