Moab Premier Properties Realtor and Associate Broker Tom Shellenberger gestured toward the western edge of a 38.95-acre property on Spanish Valley Drive that could eventually become home to more affordable housing units in the community. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Affordable homes in Grand County are in such short supply that once a property in the low- to mid-$200,000 range comes on the market, local Realtors say it will often be sold that very day.

But a pending donation of undeveloped property in Spanish Valley to a local nonprofit land trust could boost the availability of housing for residents who live and work in the community.

Moab Premier Properties Realtor and Associate Broker Tom Shellenberger represented the seller and the buyer on the deal for a 38.95-acre property at 2022 S. Spanish Valley Drive. He hailed it as a milestone in efforts to build more affordable housing in the community, noting that one key piece of the puzzle is already in place: The Grand County Council rezoned the land last year to encourage the development of higher-density units that make such projects economically feasible.

“It’s the largest parcel that I know of that can be zoned (Multi-Family Residential),” Shellenberger said. “It was the largest parcel for sale in any of these zones.”

Shellenberger declined to identify the buyer, who is reportedly planning to donate the property to the Moab Area Community Land Trust. But according to public records from the Grand County Recorder’s Office, the buyer is listed as the Palladium Foundation of Salt Lake City. Local philanthropist Jennifer Speers is identified in other online documents as the foundation’s president.

The $2.5 million sale is one of two major real estate transactions in southeastern Utah that Speers has been involved with in the past few weeks.

On Wednesday, May 24, Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) announced that it sold Speers the Needles Outpost, a 640-acre parcel on the edge of Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District. According to SITLA, the Needles Outpost may eventually be turned over to a conservation group such as The Nature Conservancy, which owns the nearby Dugout Ranch in San Juan County.

Shellenberger said that many details of the pending donation in Grand County still need to be worked out, but the land trust’s board members are excited by news of the deal.

“This (will be) the first substantial donation to the land trust, and I think they hope it’s not the last one either,” Shellenberger said. “It’s just a start.”

Moab Area Community Land Trust chair Audrey Graham said she cannot comment on the deal at this time, but generally speaking, she said she’s encouraged by the community interest in affordable housing.

“I am happy about all the excitement over new housing options in Moab, and glad for any part the Moab Area Community Land Trust can play,” Graham said.

The Spanish Valley property was listed for more than two years, and in that time, Shellenberger said there were three accepted offers that ultimately never materialized, for one reason or another.

Apart from its size, the property has one built-in advantage over many others in Spanish Valley: higher-density zoning that allows for up to eight units per acre.

In a strangely timed coincidence, the sale was listed with the county recorder’s office exactly one year to the day after the Grand County Council approved a previous owner’s request to rezone the property, known as Arroyo Crossing.

Council members had previously rejected the proposed development of 220 housing units on the land in early 2016 due to a lack of commitment on paper to affordable housing. However, Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said that former property owner Michael Kaeske later signed a formal agreement to commit 20 percent of the units as deed-restricted affordable housing.

With that commitment locked up, a majority of Grand County Council members voted in May 2016 to approve the rezone. They also signed off on a development agreement which ensures that 20 percent of the units will remain deed-restricted affordable housing over a 40-year period, along with a master plan for the property.

Levine gave kudos to Kaeske for his voluntary commitment to filling a “huge need” in the community.

“I think that the previous landowner was really supportive of our affordable housing efforts and had the foresight to see that it could be profitable, even with 20 percent set aside (for affordable housing),” he said.

Although the new owner’s plans could change, Levine said that any amount of more affordable housing will be a boon to the county and its residents.

“Whether there will be 44 units of affordable housing – or more, or less – it’s very significant for our community,” he said.

Shellenberger, who previously served on the Grand County Planning Commission, said that he and his fellow board members viewed the area as a prime location for higher-density residential development. Among other things, they considered the site’s relative proximity to town and easy access along the U.S. Highway 191 corridor.

“We earmarked these parcels for development for those reasons,” he said.

Since he left that board, Shellenberger said that Levine and the Grand County Community Development Office have made significant strides to spur the development of affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“Zacharia has been very supportive of this all along,” he said. “He’s worked with other potential buyers on this property and done all he can to encourage developers (to build affordable housing).”

Realtors say current market geared toward higher end

As things currently stand in Grand County, Shellenberger sees a chronic shortage of listings that an average local resident can afford to buy.

“I feel the market is in the $210,00 to $240,000 range for a single-family home, but we really don’t have that many on the market,” he said. “If it does come on the market, it’s usually sold that same day.”

Anasazi Realty Broker and Principal Owner Randy Day said that Shellenberger’s experiences are not unique.

“If they’re below $225,000, they’re gone,” Day said. “I’ve had homes with multiple offers go on the same day.”

Right now, Day said, the cheapest house he’s posted on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is close to $300,000.

“The problem with our market is there’s no middle,” he said. “… It’s tough because the middle gets sucked out.”

Day praised Speers for her generosity, calling the pending donation to the land trust a “positive step in the right direction.” But Day – who is most certainly not a fan of deed restrictions – said that whoever develops the property needs to be careful in how they proceed.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that it should work out, but be careful with deed restrictions, because they limit people’s upward mobility,” he said.

The bottom line, he said, is that homeowners who are subject to deed restrictions will “never” catch up to the market.

“You’re going to live in that house forever, or rent it out,” he said. “It puts a person in a holding pattern and they cannot have upward mobility on that purchase in their lifetime.”

Aside from Day’s objections to deed restrictions, some of the property’s closest neighbors have raised concerns in the past about potential impacts related to drainage, traffic and population densities.

Shellenberger, who lives in the nearby Buena Vista Subdivision and counts himself among the property’s neighbors, said that at some point, the developers will likely hire consultants or others to examine those potential impacts. In addition, he said, county planning and zoning officials will play a big role during further reviews of the project.

Ultimately, Levine said that the owner or developers can submit a preliminary plat application that conforms at a minimum to the density and set-aside requirements that are outlined in the county-approved master plan. If there are any significant differences, he said, the county council will have to review and approve them, but his office will do what it can to assist them.

“We’ll support them where we can with information and procedural help,” he said.

This (will be) the first substantial donation to the land trust, and I think they hope it’s not the last one either … It’s just a start.