Tom Clyde: How many Holsteins can dance on the head of a pin?
Remember that time when Summit County voters—even on the East side— overwhelmingly approved $50 million in bonds to preserve open space? It seems like it was forever ago. It’s just shy of a year. So what’s been accomplished in that time? I think the technical term for it is “diddly squat.” The Council recently got around to appointing a committee of 21 people, drawn from the three traditional sub-orbits of Summit County political life. They were charged with the duty to form a somewhat less cumbersome committee that would review proposed bond expenditures and make recommendations—first to the whole 21, and then to the Council. Yeah, that ought to work.
$50 million is big money on the East side, even if it is barely a kitchen remodel in some Park City neighborhoods. It needs to be spent wisely. The money can be spent anywhere in the County, but the focus among the bond supporters, at least unofficially, was to preserve the Kamas meadow. That’s about 7,000 acres of largely undisturbed land. It matters because it is beautiful and defines the Kamas valley. It also matters because it is a huge aquifer that provides the drinking water for everybody downstream on the Weber River. A substantial part of the drinking water in Park City and Snyderville is pumped over the mountain from wells just above Rockport. They are fed by the Kamas meadow aquifer.
Kamas is un-like Las Vegas in a lot of ways. What happens in the Kamas meadow doesn’t stay in the Kamas meadow. It comes out of your tap. A thousand septic tanks and cul-de-sac storm drains out there is probably not a good idea.
The dream was that one of the remaining legacy ranches would come on the market, and instead of being snapped up by a developer to build more stucco houses, a conservation-minded buyer would come along and buy the land and offer to sell a conservation easement to the County. That only happens in movies.
Except it did happen. In one of those incredible planetary alignments, all the pieces fell into position. A key piece of land hit the market. A buyer who wants to be in the dairy business with resort land prices has it under contract. And Summit County has $50 million, a good part of which could buy the conservation easement.
The bond proceeds aren’t enough to buy much of anything outright. The plan has always been that the County money would match with private, State and Federal money to buy conservation easements from willing sellers to prevent, or at least reduce, future urbanization or general ranchette-a-fication of the meadow. Summit Land Conservancy is on the case, looking for possible easement sellers and beating the bushes for matching grant funds. They’ve accomplished more than anybody could have imagined on the Weber below Wanship. With a $50 million boost from the County, all kinds of good stuff should be happening in Kamas.
But it’s not. The Council is mired in a debate over how many Holsteins can dance on the head of a pin, and rather than facilitating the dream deal. The Council appears to be in the way. It’s imperative that purchases be done fairly, without political or familial favor, and in ways that maximize the leverage of the available money. So there’s nothing wrong with trying to get it right. But there’s a lot wrong with letting it drift. The private parties are patient—they are farmers after all—but they are also running businesses and can’t be in limbo forever. While the County dithers on this, the rest of the world is marching on. Kamas City has an aggressive annexation plan that would line SR 248 with commercially zoned property.
Since the $50 million bond was passed, real estate prices have only gone up. The rate of increase may be slowing a bit now, but I don’t hear anybody talking about a local crash. Interest rates have nearly doubled. Between interest rates and a hot market, the $50 million is now worth considerably less than it was a year ago.
Private parties are dealing with their own needs. Families that have owned the land for 100 years or more have reached the end of the line for farming. There isn’t a next generation willing to take it over, and if there were, they can sell and find 10 times the ranchland in Idaho or Wyoming for the same price. So the private sales are marching on.
This is a generational opportunity, maybe once in multiple generational opportunity. The County needs to be facilitating the deal, not worrying whether the private parties are making too much profit on the sale. The value of the easement is something the Land Trust appraisals will figure out. The County, hopefully with other financial partners, should pay what it’s worth—and not more. The terms of the private deal between the buyer and seller really aren’t any of the County’s business.
So many of the issues confronting the County Council are almost insurmountable—affordable housing comes to mind, along with traffic—that it seems very strange that when there is a chance to make a lasting difference through implementation of the open space bond, for some reason, we just can’t get it done.
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