This architectural rendering shows the proposed hotel resort on the Lionsback property off Sand Flats Road. [Image courtesy of Invent Development Partners]

State officials are invoking an obscure Utah law to jump-start the previously approved Lionsback Resort. But the Moab City Council wants more time to review a proposed agreement that could resolve a dispute over recent changes to the developer’s plans for a 150-room hotel on the property off Sand Flats Road.

The council voted unanimously on Tuesday, Dec. 13, to postpone consideration of an agreement with LB Moab Land Co. LLC and Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) until its second meeting in January 2017.

The city approved a preliminary agreement for the project in 2009, but opponents challenged a previous council’s 3-2 vote, and the legal dispute that followed took four years to work its way through the court system. The Utah Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear the case, allowing a lower court’s ruling in favor of the city and the developers to stand as is.

“This is a fully entitled project,” SITLA Associate Director John Andrews told the council. “It has been for a number of years.”

But even as the project withstood litigation, it stalled, as the national economy continued to recover from the 2008 recession, and communication reportedly faltered during former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson’s time as the city’s top administrator.

“It is our understanding from our partner that communications (with the city) pretty much ceased,” Andrews said.

With the upturn in the economy, project developer Invent Development Partners of Denver was eager to move forward with the project on SITLA-owned lands, so the state agency intervened on its behalf.

About one month after the city terminated Davidson’s contract in September “without cause,” SITLA officials informed the city that they intended to exercise their right under state law to partially exempt the project from local government review.

As a state government entity, SITLA is not subject to municipal planning and zoning regulations, and Moab City Attorney Chris McAnany informed the council that the agency would only agree to city jurisdiction on one condition: It wanted the city to classify changes to the plan as “minor” amendments, subject only to staff-level review, and not a more comprehensive public review.

The city has maintained that the amendments are a major change because, in its interpretation of the plan, the size of the hotel has tripled, from a 50-room casita-style hotel, to a 150-room hotel. The project, which would be developed in phases, also includes 43 single-family lots for custom-built homes.

“We had just a strong disagreement (regarding) what our respective positions are,” Andrews said. “We would like to get past this dispute.”

To that end, the two sides came up with an agreement, whereby the city would classify the changes during the project’s first phase as minor amendments. For its part, SITLA would agree to address specific city concerns about traffic issues on Sand Flats Road, although it would not be required to conduct a new study of traffic in the area before the first phase of construction begins – a potential sticking point for some council members.

Moab City Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd said that she and others would simply like to see more information about current traffic patterns on the road, which have increased since the developer commissioned a survey in 2008.

“I know you’re telling me that your traffic study is telling you that that road is safe,” Knuteson-Boyd said. “(But) … the guys I work with drive that road every day. It’s not always safe for haul trucks and snow plows and ATVs and UTVs and bicyclists.”

McAnany suggested that the council might need a more thorough history of the project’s twists and turns, noting that in the past, both sides looked at many of the issues that Knuteson-Boyd raised.

SITLA officials made similar points throughout the meeting, arguing that the proposed agreement would not undermine concerns about traffic and other issues, such as potential impacts on groundwater quality.

“None of the major concerns are being foregone with this agreement,” SITLA Project Manager Troy Herold said at one point.

But Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said the 2008 traffic survey might not offer an accurate picture of current traffic patterns on the road, given the increasing popularity of mountain biking, as well as ATV and UTV use, at the Sand Flats Recreation Area.

“2008 was eight years ago,” Sakrison said. “And you can see the impact of ATVs coming down that road now. I mean, this is a whole brand-new day.”

Moab City Council member Kalen Jones told the Moab Sun News that he believes a traffic study would be helpful to city and county officials, as the project moves forward.

“Presuming that a traffic study or traffic count isn’t too expensive, I think that updating our baseline information would be worthwhile,” he said.

“I’m not sure how waiting to do a traffic study would serve the city or the county,” he added.

To the developer’s credit, Jones said, it appears that much effort was put into a comprehensive plan that may well address city officials’ and residents’ concerns about the development.

But Jones said he thinks that the distinction between a major and a minor amendment is an important one to make, in terms of the level of review it triggers.

“I’m concerned that if the city allows this to be called a minor change, it sets a precedent for other, non-SITLA developers,” he said.

Without the agreement, McAnany wrote, it is likely that SITLA and the developer would invoke the zoning exemption anyway, and take the city out of any further review processes. Both entities could also sue the city to seek a judgment of the project’s rights under Utah statute and the existing approvals, he wrote.

But county resident Bill Love – the only member of the public to speak out against the proposed agreement – criticized SITLA’s move to invoke the zoning exemption. He urged council members to reject the proposal, outlining some of the same concerns that Jones and others raised.

“SITLA’s greed and intimidation should not be accepted by this council,” Love said.

Andrews reiterated that SITLA and the developers have already addressed the conditions that Love outlined.

Herold, meanwhile, assured the council that he would not support the development “doing anything” that would jeopardize the city. Current zoning laws would have allowed for the development of as many as 402 units, he noted, but under the plan, 128 of the project’s 175 acres will remain open space.

Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi, who noted that local schools would benefit from SITLA projects in the area, suggested the agency now has a chance to publicly respond to residents’ concerns about groundwater quality, traffic safety and other issues.

“I really think that this is SITLA’s opportunity to shine, because you all are doing a great thing raising money for the schools,” Ershadi said. “And I want people to remember that … I think that if this development is pushed through, people will feel like their concerns were ignored: That’s what they’re going to remember. But if you address those concerns, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, those guys really set a model for a community-minded development that was 100 percent positive.’”

Council seeks more information about traffic impacts, other concerns related to Sand Flats Road development

I think that if this development is pushed through, people will feel like their concerns were ignored: That’s what they’re going to remember. But if you address those concerns, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, those guys really set a model for a community-minded development that was 100 percent positive.’”