Recusal, accusation shake up first County Council review of Tech Center proposal
After more than a year of public scrutiny, it seemed unlikely that there would be any surprising revelations as the development application for the Tech Center site at Kimball Junction continued its way through the county’s approval process.
But the Summit County Council hadn’t had a crack at it yet, and the first meeting in front of the body started with a bang when Councilor Chris Robinson recused himself from evaluating the application that has the possibility to remake what has been called the gateway to Park City.
Robinson said he regretted what he called a lapse in judgment in accepting Utah Jazz tickets from the developers in February.
The meeting was bookended by an even more unusual assertion, when County Council Chair Doug Clyde questioned whether an unnamed former county employee improperly enabled hundreds of thousands of square feet of development over and above what was originally approved on the site by excluding affordable housing from density calculations.
“If this whole thing was perpetrated and predicated on a fraud precipitated by a former employee of the county, I want to know,” Clyde told his fellow councilors.
He alleged that calculations determining how much density would fit on the site were made by a county staffer who later went on to become a manager of the project for the developer.
A representative for developer Dakota Pacific Real Estate said it was not involved in density decisions for the property ten years before they bought it in 2008 and did not hire a former Summit County staff member to help with the project.
In addressing Robinson’s recusal, developer Jeff Gochnour said his firm was taking steps internally to make sure its reputation is preserved.
“Our company’s integrity is of paramount importance to us,” Gochnour said.
Clyde’s accusation raised a few eyebrows, with Councilor Roger Armstrong suggesting that the issue at the heart of Clyde’s claims — how much development could be built there — had already been settled.
Dakota Pacific Real Estate is seeking to develop 1.3 million square feet of residential, commercial and office space on the land west of S.R. 224 south of Walmart. That’s the square footage that both the developers and county planning staffers say is entitled in a 2008 development agreement that governs the site.
That agreement limits what projects can be built there to businesses related to the technology sector as well as smaller support functions. Of the 1.3 million square feet, only 75,000 have been developed so far, Gochnour said. Dakota Pacific is seeking to amend the agreement to relax those standards, potentially paving the way for the undeveloped land to be built out.
Several projects have tried and failed to find a home in the Tech Center, and the community consensus seems to be that the possibility of a thriving tech park in the Wasatch Back is unlikely.
Only three buildings have been constructed — the Park City Visitor’s Center, the Skullcandy headquarters and, northwest of the proposed site, Liberty Peak Apartments.
The 195,000-square-foot apartment complex did not count against the 1.3 million square feet of entitled density, nor in Gochnour’s estimation of the 75,000 square feet of what has already been built. County Planner Kirsten Whetstone said it is standard practice to count affordable housing projects outside density totals.
Dakota Pacific is seeking to build another 335,000 square feet of affordable or workforce housing in its new application, which also is not counted against the 1.3 million-square-foot cap.
The decade-old, 258-page development agreement does not enumerate how many square feet can be built on the site, instead specifying that structures meet certain limitations regarding design standards like maximum heights and distances from roads.
Clyde, whose career has been centered around ski resort planning and development and who works as a development consultant, referred to this way of measuring entitlement as ascertaining the land’s capacity to support development.
He contends that if the original agreement accurately measured the land’s capacity, the affordable housing should have affected the total amount of density the land could support.
To Clyde, this casts doubt on how the original determination was made about the capability of the land.
“My distrust in that figure comes from the fact that, to my understanding, that calculation was made by the then-future manager of this project, who was then a county employee,” Clyde said. “I think we’ve got to air that out until there is nothing left in that fabric.”
County staffers said they would bring support documentation to future meetings about how that density figure was determined.
There will only be four councilors to evaluate that information, however, after Robinson’s recusal.
The longest-tenured councilor owns hundreds of thousands of acres of land across the West and his recusal was notable, even if news of his involvement with another player in Utah’s real estate sector was unsurprising.
Robinson discussed two decades of close relationships with the developers involved in the project, citing friendships with three principals Dakota Pacific Real Estate, the leaders of which have worked on developments in Summit County and the Wasatch Front under various other business entities.
Robinson apologized to his colleagues on the council and the residents of Summit County before leaving the virtual meeting. He accepted from the developers six tickets to a Utah Jazz game in February, and he said his involvement in the approval process would violate state law.
“I believe that my behavior has disqualified me from participating in consideration by this council and the county in this matter. This is a very important piece of real estate and it deserves a completely transparent and forthright consideration and I believe it does a disservice to the process, to the county, to the applicant to have any taint that may be caused by me,” Robinson said. “For this reason, I humbly apologize to you my colleagues and citizens of the county for my lack of judgment. But I think it is best served that I completely recuse myself from any participation.”
In a message to The Park Record, Robinson added that he was frustrated by his mistake because he believes he could have made a positive impact on the approval process.
Community interest has been high in the Tech Center development process and it appears likely there will be several more meetings before another round of public hearings.
The County Council is the final land-use authority for the application, barring an appeal to district court. The Snyderville Basin Planning Commission forwarded a negative recommendation to the County Council last month.
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