Park City Treasure vote: Old Town v. rest of city? Schools v. open space?
September 5, 2018
The top of the ballot on Election Day in Park City is, ostensibly, the U.S. Senate contest between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Jenny Wilson.
But many Park City voters could instead be absorbed by a down-ballot decision that may be seen as the top of the ballot inside the municipality: whether to acquire Treasure in a $64 million conservation deal. The City Hall ballot measure enlivens what would otherwise be seen as a docile campaign season in Park City with uncontested County Courthouse posts alongside Statehouse and congressional seats long seen as reliably Republican.
As the season starts in earnest, much of the politicking in Park City could center on the ballot measure for Treasure. City Hall needs to raise $48 million of the overall cost through the ballot measure after the remainder was earmarked through budget maneuvering like reductions or other funding sources.
At $48 million, though, it is, by a wide margin, the most expensive of City Hall's conservation ballot measures, nearly doubling the $25 million voters authorized to fund most of the cost of the acquisition of Bonanza Flat.
The Treasure land is located on a hillside overlooking Old Town along the route of the Town Lift. A partnership involving the Sweeney family and a firm called Park City II, LLC owns the land and spent years in talks with the Park City Planning Commission about a development proposal encompassing approximately 1 million square feet. The Sweeney family in the 1980s secured an overall development approval for the Treasure land and nearby parcels and later sold a stake to Park City II, LLC, creating the partnership.
The Planning Commission and project critics, many living on nearby streets like Lowell Avenue and Empire Avenue, over the course of more than a decade expressed deep-rooted concerns about the project. The critics argue that traffic headed to and from Treasure would overwhelm the roads, the buildings would loom over Old Town and the years of construction would devalue the quality of life. They claimed the 1980s approval did not envision a project as large as the one the partnership sought.
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As the Planning Commission appeared poised to cast a vote against the project, Park City leaders and the Treasure partnership engaged in closed-door talks about the possibility of some sort of conservation deal. The $64 million acquisition was reached in early 2018 and was followed by the financial discussions that ended with the ballot measure priced at $48 million.
The deal would be unlike any other in City Hall's years of conservation acquisitions. The $64 million soars above the $38 million paid for Bonanza Flat, to date Park City's most expensive conservation deal. It would also end a development debate that has stretched through the decades even as other large-scale projects have been argued and ultimately built. In another wrinkle, the Park City Council late in the Treasure talks agreed to contribute up to $3 million of the $48 million toward an unrelated conservation deal in Thaynes Canyon known as Snow Ranch Pasture.
City Hall projects a successful $48 million ballot measure would increase property taxes by $194 annually on an $800,000 residence classified as primary. The increase on a vacation home or a commercial property of the same value is projected to be $353 each year. The bond would be repaid over a 16-year term.
Some of the topics that could be crucial to the Treasure campaign include:
• whether the possibility of development on the Treasure land is a critical issue outside Old Town. The core opposition to the Treasure development is centered in Old Town, with people living within blocks of the land appearing to be the most worried. But Old Town voters typically do not decide City Hall elections. It has been decades since Old Town has been the population center of Park City, and elections are typically won or lost in other neighborhoods. The supporters of the ballot measure will need to convince voters outside of Old Town the acquisition and tax increase required to fund the deal are worthwhile even to those who do not live nearby and may only occasionally drive on the streets that would be most impacted by traffic headed to and from Treasure. The addition of the Snow Ranch Pasture land to the ballot measure is seen as a carrot for voters outside of Old Town, notably those in Thaynes Canyon.
• whether there is an opposition movement that could act as an election-season counterbalance to supporters who have already mobilized. The supporters of the ballot measure — those who oppose the Treasure development proposal — were able to quickly coalesce, likely a result of them having organized against the development proposal over the past decade-plus. Yard signs in support of the ballot measure appeared in recent days and the political chatter thus far has been heavily weighted toward the backers. It is becoming less likely as the important weeks of the campaign near that an organized group in opposition will form. Two people had signaled their interest in drafting an argument against the ballot measure that would be included in official election materials. Six people had submitted their names as candidates to draft the argument in favor of the ballot measure.
• whether voters considering their decision on the Treasure ballot measure will weigh the potential of a City Hall tax increase to acquire the land against the near-certain prospects of the Park City School District sometime in the next few years asking for voter approval of a high-dollar package of capital improvements that would necessitate a property-tax increase. Voters in the School District in 2015 rejected a $56 million ballot measure that would have funded a separate list of upgrades. The School District, perhaps as early as 2019, could put a reworked package of improvements on the ballot. The School District covers Park City and the Snyderville Basin, meaning that a broader electorate would decide a ballot measure for capital improvements. A voter-approved tax increase in the School District would be paid inside Park City regardless of whether it wins a majority within the municipal limits. The looming School District ballot measure could influence some people in Park City as they decide their Treasure vote, particularly those in the middle and lower classes with worries about the affordability of Park City. Supporters of the Treasure deal, though, could mount an argument highlighting that earlier voter-approved City Hall ballot measures that funded conservation acquisitions will be retired in coming years, reducing property taxes paid to the municipal government over time even as a successful Treasure ballot measure remains on the books.