Park City land deal could be October surprise, in midsummer
Park City officials and the leadership of Utah Open Lands may have orchestrated a political masterstroke months before anyone is able to cast a ballot on what will be Park City’s largest-ever conservation ballot measure.
It could be, essentially, a 19-acre October surprise in the middle of the summer.
For months, since the announcement in late January that City Hall had reached a conservation agreement to acquire the Treasure acreage, officials, the opposition to the Treasure development proposal and City Hall watchers have been focused on the prospects of that deal being finalized.
At $64 million, the acquisition would be, by a wide margin, the most expensive conservation purchase in the history of Park City’s widely lauded open space program. The deal, officials said, depended on Park City voters approving a ballot measure that was expected to be pegged at approximately $50 million. At that figure, it would be double City Hall’s current largest-ever open space ballot measure — the $25 million approved by voters that funded most of the $38 million cost of the acquisition of Bonanza Flat.
Then, suddenly, in the middle of July and as important deadlines approached to put the question to voters on Election Day in November, Mayor Andy Beerman and the Park City Council indicated they would consider a major reworking of the ballot measure to include an unrelated open space deal.
The inclusion of Snow Ranch Pastures in Thaynes Canyon in the discussions about Treasure abruptly and fundamentally altered the complexion of the debate about the Treasure deal itself, even before the elected officials make a decision about the newly available acreage. Several possibilities remain for City Hall to make a major contribution, perhaps half of the overall price tag, to a Snow Ranch Pastures deal.
It could eventually come to be seen as a deft maneuver by both City Hall and the not-for-profit Utah Open Lands, the organization that reached a $6 million agreement to protect Snow Ranch Pastures from development. Utah Open Lands wants City Hall to contribute $3 million of the overall price to block development through an instrument known as a conservation easement. Under such an instrument, the landowner retains the acreage but forgoes the development rights.
The officials at City Hall are considering options to fund the contribution with possibilities like adding $3 million to what was to be a $50.7 million ballot measure for Treasure or putting other open space funds toward the Utah Open Lands agreement. More details will likely be publicized next week as the mayor and City Council hold another meeting about the topic.
City Hall could enjoy benefits beyond the preservation of Snow Ranch Pastures if leaders agree to the $3 million contribution. The potential inclusion in some fashion of Snow Ranch Pastures in a ballot measure that was up until mid-July envisioned as exclusively a Treasure vote may be influential in November. Even though any Snow Ranch Pastures inclusion would represent a small percentage of the overall sum of a ballot measure, officials could see the benefits as outweighing the dangers of tinkering with the question put to voters.
In one line of thinking, the addition of Snow Ranch Pastures would be seen as turning the ballot measure into a question that would have broader appeal than one that involved Treasure on its own. The opposition to the Treasure development itself has been concentrated in Old Town, particularly on streets like Lowell Avenue and Empire Avenue, and the ballot measure is expected to have support there. But Park City elections typically are decided in more populated neighborhoods like Park Meadows rather than in Old Town. Snow Ranch Pastures could attract the interest of other neighborhoods, particularly Thaynes Canyon.
It seems the elected officials could be considering the Election Day calculus as they weigh a decision on Snow Ranch Pastures. There has been no known polling conducted regarding the Treasure ballot measure, leaving little beyond political instincts to guide leaders. Backers of the Treasure deal recently urged the mayor and City Council to add Snow Ranch Pastures. They saw an expanded effort for open space with Treasure and Snow Ranch Pastures as appealing to the wider electorate in addition to praising the prospects of keeping the parcel undeveloped.
Utah Open Lands, meanwhile, may have made an ingenious move as it mobilizes a fundraising effort to secure the $6 million needed for Snow Ranch Pastures. The organization over the years has proven to be a formidable fundraiser, having been involved in efforts across Utah, including a series in the Park City area. Securing $3 million from Park City voters through a ballot measure, though, would cut the campaign to raise the funds by 50 percent. Doing so would leave the organization needing to cover a more manageable sum. That could be important so shortly after Utah Open Lands played a pivotal role in an extraordinary fundraising drive that successfully closed a $13 million gap in monies needed for City Hall to acquire Bonanza Flat.
Utah Open Lands brought in funds for Bonanza Flat through numerous donations in a campaign that included individuals throughout the area, government bodies, corporate entities and other not-for-profit organizations. A conservation deal for Bonanza Flat, though, was touted as having environmental and recreational benefits across the Wasatch Mountain region. Treasure and Snow Ranch Pastures likely are not seen by the regional masses in a similar vein, potentially making the Utah Open Lands fundraising argument more difficult outside the Park City limits. There could also be weariness among donors just more than a year after the Bonanza Flat fundraising drive.
If that is the case, reducing the dollar figure to $3 million with City Hall assistance could, indeed, be the October surprise backers of the two deals may need.
Three months early.
Nearly a dozen Park City and Summit County officials sat on a public panel Wednesday to outline the way forward on wildfire management and to answer questions from residents.