Summit County approves its largest open space purchase (updated)

Community was overwhelmingly in favor of $55 million price tag, though ideas about how land should be used differ

The Summit County Council approved a $55 million option agreement to purchase the 910 Cattle Ranch on Thursday. It is the county’s largest-ever open space purchase.
Courtesy of Summit County

Summit County approved its largest-ever open space purchase this week in what officials have characterized as a legacy opportunity for the community.

Dozens of residents, from Silver Summit and Willow Creek to Francis and Wanship, packed into the Richins Building on Thursday night to voice both support and concern about the opportunity to buy around 9,000 acres near Jeremy Ranch in East Canyon.

The Summit County Council unanimously adopted a recommendation from the Summit County Manager to approve a $55 million option agreement to purchase the 910 Cattle Ranch. The approval came after about two hours of discussion, earning a standing ovation from attendees.

Around 20 people spoke during the meeting, with all but one offering support for the purchase. However, opinions differed when it came to how the public should be allowed to use the land. 

A common theme throughout the evening was the need for thoughtful planning to prevent the property from being “loved to death.”

“They aren’t making any more land. The land we have is what we have. Once it’s developed, that pristine open landscape is gone. And we’ve all witnessed that. If you’ve lived in Summit County for any number of years, even two, you’ve witnessed that. I happen to be a fifth generation from Summit County. So, you want to talk about seeing change and development? I’ve seen it in my lifetime,” Summit County Councilor Tonja Hanson said.

“Yes, we need to be thoughtful and careful with how we manage this property,” she continued, and referenced a conservation easement on a 5,000 acre parcel her family owns. “But I do believe through this acquisition and management, we can make the property better. I know this firsthand.”

Community members described the 910 Cattle Ranch as “a work of art,” “the crown jewel of Summit County,” and a “vital resource.” Some speakers became emotional when speaking about the conservation effort and thanked county officials for their commitment.

“We get one chance at making sure we can protect (open space),” said Wendy Fisher, the executive director of Utah Open Lands. “I’ve been up on that property, and it is stunning, and it is amazing. And there’s more riparian value there and that is a precious resource in a desert state … it is a landscape-scale save.”

Those who live in close proximity to the property expressed excitement about the chance to improve outdoor recreation by creating new trails or opportunities for cross-country skiing, mountain biking and camping.

Snyderville Basin Special Recreation District Director Dana Jones supported the monumental effort to save the property. She expected it would be a lot of work, but staff are excited to explore the possibilities for the site.

However, others indicated the land should remain untouched.

Some speakers stated they wanted the land to be preserved with restricted public access to limit human activity, or for it to become a wildlife sanctuary.

Katarina Blaze identified herself as a resident of Tollgate Canyon and a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources volunteer. She expressed concern the property will look different in 20 years despite the love residents have for it, and asked the community to be good stewards of the land despite their different visions for the property. Environmental studies were also encouraged by a few speakers.

The biggest opposition to the purchase was regarding the hunting and fishing restrictions. Several speakers questioned the decision and cited the benefits of managing wildlife populations, including Perry Hall, who is the chair of the Utah Chapter of the Montana-based nonprofit Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

County Council Chair Roger Armstrong said the property owner, David Bernolfo, has dedicated more than 30 years to protecting wildlife in the area, and he firmly requested hunting be prohibited if the county takes ownership. Armstrong also emphasized the land was primarily being acquired for conservation and preservation.

There were also several comments about the need for the county to properly manage the huge parcel, which could be a costly endeavor. Sara Jo Dickens, an ecologist and the founder of Ecology Bridge, warned stepping back from maintaining the grounds for even a year could set the property back five to 10 years and result in hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage.

Snyderville Basin Planning Commissioner Thomas Cooke voiced support for the project, but he urged officials to tread with caution and find balance between the human and natural worlds.

Other residents appeared to just be happy the purchase was approved. Snyderville Basin resident Van Novack said the land will be better used under county ownership than unprotected against strip malls and development.

County Councilor Chris Robinson and Summit County Lands and Natural Resources Director Jess Kirby were recognized for their work in making the acquisition possible. Robinson recognized the public meeting was announced on short notice, but he said it’s been in the works on and off since at least 2017 with efforts taking off over the last two months.

“There’s an old saying that the opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity, and I think this property could easily be carved up and developed into parcels … it is such a rare, continuous block of landscape-scale land,” he said. “It’s been relatively untouched for the last 30 years.”

Robinson affirmed the county will create a forest management and weed mitigation plan to keep the property pristine. 

The $55 million transaction price includes a four-year option to acquire the property as well as a $5,000-a-month lease that gives the County Courthouse control of the property during the period. Half of the money from the lease will go toward the purchase price and the rest will be retained by the landowner. 

The county is slated to pay a $15 million three-year option fee with the possibility to extend for another year for an additional $5 million, which will come out of the $50 million open space bond approved by Summit County voters in November of 2021. The option payments go toward the total purchase price.

Speakers did not raise issues with the sale cost. 

Members of the County Council were optimistic about finding other funding opportunities to stretch the bond dollars. Officials in March set aside $5 million as an option fee to purchase an 834-acre farm in the Kamas Meadow. They have four years to raise the remaining $20 million to acquire the land.

Officials said Bernolfo will be putting the property under a charity, which will then sell the land to the county. The County Council expected to close on the sale by the end of the week.

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