Park City’s era-defining question: Who, precisely, won the growth battle? (analysis)
December 26, 2018
This is the first in a three-article package looking back on an era of extraordinary growth and development in Park City. In the other articles, The Park Record attempts to answer the question of who won some of the greatest development battles and examines the impact a future Winter Olympics could have on developments at Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort.
It was June of 1999 and Park City was already years into the talks about the bitterly contested development proposal known as Flagstaff, a project that was to stretch through the upper reaches of Empire Canyon.
The project was designed to involve high-altitude houses, a large hotel and a major expansion of the Deer Valley Resort skiing terrain. The developer and landowner at the time was United Park City Mines, the modern-day successor to the city's historic silver-mining industry. Large tracts of land were amassed over the decades when mining drove the economy and, by the 1990s, the firm understood high-end real estate development rather than extraction of a precious metal would be the key to the New York Stock Exchange-traded company's future.
United Park City Mines wanted City Hall to annex the approximately 1,750 acres and allow the project. There had been development disputes in Park City prior to the Flagstaff battle, but the project essentially marked a delineation between a time when growth was seen as important to building and sustaining an internationally renowned mountain resort and an age when the community more closely considered the impacts of the growth. It remains Park City's most polarizing development dispute, one that stretched from the Marsac Building to the County Courthouse and one that reverberated into Wasatch County and Salt Lake County. It ushered in an era of mounting tension between developers, neighborhoods, activists and City Hall.
The Park City Council on that night voted 4-0 to annex the land from unincorporated Summit County and approve an agreement that outlined the parameters of the development. The decision was celebrated on all sides. United Park City Mines won the vote it needed to proceed with what would ultimately be developed as Empire Pass, City Hall ensured itself rather than the County Courthouse would control the future of the land just south of Old Town and the opposition to the development, led by a group called Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth, was pleased it influenced the outcome by successfully pressing for several notable alterations in the design. A Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth threat to attempt to put the City Council decision to voters through a referendum was withdrawn soon after.
"Every tree we've saved up there, every acre we've saved up there, every house that won't be there is a victory," Rich Wyman, a key figure in Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth, said just after the City Council approval of the Flagstaff annexation.
It is difficult nowadays to grasp the intensity with which the Flagstaff-era discussions unfolded, drawing packed houses meeting after meeting and year after year. Opponents at some points would contest the sheer breadth of Flagstaff, while at other times the dissension could center on a single stand of trees high in the mountains.
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And it was impossible at that juncture to understand the ramifications of Flagstaff on the ensuing decades. The dispute essentially launched the political career of Dana Williams, a leader of Citizens Allied for
Responsible Growth who later won three consecutive terms as the mayor of Park City. Others from the opposition went on to serve on the Park City Planning Commission or lead not-for-profit organizations dedicated to preserving open lands.
The approval of Flagstaff also drew attention from outside real estate interests. United Park City Mines, and most importantly its land, ultimately was brought under the umbrella of the Talisker Corporation, an ambitious developer with Canadian roots. The presence of the Talisker Corporation triggered one of the most stunning events in Park City's history as one of the firm's subsidiaries tangled in state court with Park City Mountain Resort in a lawsuit that centered on the resort's lease of Talisker Land Holdings, LLC acreage. The land represented the bulk of the resort's skiing terrain. The case led Colorado-based Vail Resorts, a powerful player in the ski industry, to dramatically enter Park City on the side of the Talisker Corporation. The lawsuit ended with Vail Resorts acquiring PCMR and then combining the property with Canyons Resort to create the nation's largest mountain resort.
The growth struggles of course continued long after the Flagstaff meeting held in June of 1999. Even that project eventually returned to City Hall for a consequential reworking that was needed by the developers to allow what became the Montage Deer Valley to proceed.
But when Park City voters on Election Day last month approved a ballot measure providing most of the funding for the planned $64 million conservation acquisition of the Treasure acreage on a hillside overlooking Old Town, they abruptly ended what will likely be the last of the city's storied development disputes.
There is a dwindling amount of land available for large-scale development within the Park City limits, and the discussions about some of the notable undeveloped parcels, places like the parking lots outside Deer Valley Resort's Snow Park Lodge and the PCMR base-area parking lots, were essentially decided years ago when City Hall officials granted overall approvals for projects at the locations. The talks about the parking lots at the two resorts would, then, center on the details of a proposal rather than whether development should be allowed.
Nearly 20 years after the Flagstaff dispute, and after the battles, large and small, that followed that controversy, it is difficult for anyone — the developers, City Hall, rank-and-file Parkites and activists — to claim outright victory in the overriding dispute about growth and development that has, in many ways, epitomized Park City's post-mining decades.
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The developers would claim what they consider to be the broad benefits of the growth of Park City. The finances of City Hall, as an example, have long been pegged at some level to growth. Park City has not raised its share of property-tax bills in decades, relying instead on the property taxes generated from new development and the closely related increases in sales-tax receipts. Growth has also been a driver of Park City's wider economy, benefiting people across income classes. At the higher end of the income spectrum, the developers themselves, the attorneys who represent the developers, land planners, engineers, construction managers, lodging executives and real estate agents have reaped great financial rewards tied to the growth. Members of the workforce who typically do not command the same sort of compensation — the construction laborers, housekeeping crews, cash-register clerks, restaurant servers and cooks — also owe much to the growth since development has provided years of job creation.
The critics of the growth would argue what they view as the impacts of development on a community that in the 1990s appeared poised to join the ranks of skiing's elite and in the time since then — a period marked by the glow of the 2002 Winter Olympics, the post-Games boom, the recession and the subsequent robust exit from the downturn — emerged in that very fashion. They lamented the loss of open space to development even after City Hall spent tens of millions of dollars over the decades to acquire land for conservation purposes with the $64 million deal for Treasure pending. They worried about the impact on the mountainous environment, as well as wildlife, as trees were felled, foundations were excavated and road corridors were cut. They wondered whether there is enough water in Park City's high-desert setting to sustain the growth. And gridlock mounted on roads across Park City, reaching a breaking point during an astonishing traffic jam in December of 2014 that left some Park City drivers creeping along for hours to travel just a few miles.
The 20th anniversary of the pivotal Flagstaff vote will be marked in six months. It will fall shortly after City Hall's expected closing on the acquisition of Treasure, perhaps providing a moment to reflect on Park City's two greatest development disputes as well as all the others that have been fought during those two decades.
It could be an opportunity for the community to consider an era-defining question about Park City's growth: Who, precisely, won?