Mike Kelso (right) and other local residents reviewed maps of the planning area in southern Spanish Valley. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

San Juan County hasn’t yet adopted a land-use plan for southern Spanish Valley, but if the area is fully developed, its projected population has already more than doubled since November 2017, to an estimated 14,000 people.

However, that potential development scenario is based on the optimistic premise that the availability of water is not an issue in arid southeastern Utah – which it most certainly is, according to some local residents who attended a Feb. 13 open house on the draft plan.

“I think that water’s the number one issue,” said Mike Kelso, who owns property on the San Juan County side of the border, but lives in Grand County. “Until they determine how much water they have, they’re not going to be able to develop it.”

Landmark Design Principal and President Mark Vlasic presided over the public meeting in Spanish Valley to introduce the draft plan, which aims to guide future development in far northern San Juan County over the next four decades. Throughout the meeting, he acknowledged that the accessibility to water will steer growth within the planning area.

“We know this all depends on the availability of water,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of water that’s available now; there’s hopes that there will be a lot more water down the road.”

Having said that, Vlasic noted that decision makers to the south might not share one audience member’s views that developers “can’t do anything” without water.

“I would like to say that San Juan County doesn’t see it that way,” he said.

According to Vlasic, that county currently owns the rights to 500 acre-feet of water in the valley; the San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District owns an additional 5,000 acre-feet elsewhere. (One acre-foot equals about 325,851 gallons of water.)

“They’re hoping – somewhere – to get additional water,” he said. “If that water isn’t secured, the vision that is here is going to be pretty much relegated to the northern part (of the valley in San Juan County).”

The San Juan County-commissioned draft plan from Landmark Design projects that residential water use would account for about half of the total amount of water used initially. By the end of the 40-year planning period, Spanish Valley would use the entirety of its current water right and would face a deficit, so the district would need to obtain more water rights or shares to meet additional water needs, the draft plan says.

Document envisions residential development in phases

According to Vlasic, the document is intended to be a chapter in San Juan County’s overall general plan.

“It’s the structure for all of the ordinances and things that are the details,” he said.

The planning area spans across more than 6,000 acres of land, including nearly 750 acres of private property. Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) owns almost all of the remaining land, with the exception of a 550-acre chunk of federally administered land around Ken’s Lake.

Under the document’s vision for the area, private and state-owned lands would be developed over the course of six residential phases.

The first phase would occur within an already developed area of 280 homes just south of the Grand County line, adding about 210 homes, for an estimated population of about 1,200 people. From that point, residential development would increase dramatically in a second phase, and if that phase is completed, 5,000 people could be living in about 2,000 homes in higher-density neighborhoods.

The hope, Vlasic said, is that water and sewer services will be extended from north to south in an orderly process, instead of “leapfrogging” from one place to more distant locations.

Once that infrastructure is in place, Vlasic anticipates that development could begin soon afterward.

As it is, about 40 percent of the privately owned land in the northern reaches of San Juan County has been developed with homes and businesses.

Many of the area’s residents moved south of the Grand County line in search of a more rural lifestyle.

The area is generally more affordable, but the lack of a culinary water and sewer system, “simplistic” zoning and development control, and the lack of planning and development review has constrained growth there, according to the draft plan.

But development trends are changing, and the San Juan County end of the valley now faces increasing pressures from growth that is pushing south across the Grand County line.

Land-use planning and the establishment of better infrastructure in the area are now top priorities for San Juan County officials, the document says, and Anasazi Realty Principal Broker and Realtor Randy Day welcomes the process.

“The wonderful thing is, we have a great opportunity here,” he said. “We’ve got a bypass built in … We can create whatever we want to create.”

While some area residents are concerned about the resuscitation of the once-dormant Sky Ranch Airport – and others want to head off the development of overnight rentals in the area – Day said the issues are all part of growth in a community.

“This is going to end up being part of Moab, whether we like it or not, because the economics will push it in that direction,” Day said. “That’s why it’s coming.”

But Spanish Valley resident Denise Oblak, who lives on the Grand County side of the border, said that she and others appreciated the area’s distinct differences from Moab.

“Some of us liked the solitude and quiet,” Oblak said. “And that’s one thing I didn’t see much in the plan, is addressing the quality of the quietness, the night sky I love.”

Vlasic said that changes inevitably come with growth.

“But what we do hope is that we have those buffers and those transitions – those separations – (so) that we don’t have that continuous, wall-to-wall (development),” Vlasic said.

Plan incorporates recommendations from residents

The planners outlined possible revisions to San Juan County’s existing ordinances that would require well-organized development, compatible land uses and appropriate buffers between different land uses.

Based on the project team’s interviews with valley residents, the community’s vision for the planning area calls for the preservation of the valley’s dark night skies and quiet rural setting through zoning ordinances. That vision also guides potential developers to take the area’s natural environment – especially its flood plains and waterways – into consideration when they’re moving forward with a project.

In terms of residential development, many residents support a mixture of housing types and densities, with an emphasis on affordable housing.

“Affordability came up again and again and again,” Vlasic said. “So that’s something we understand is a big issue in the valley.”

Area residents want to encourage the development of businesses and the creation of jobs through the well-situated zones adjacent to Highway 191. At the same time, they want to develop a strong community feel by carefully integrating community and civic places through the area’s residential core, as well as a small commercial center in a central location where local businesses are the norm.

“Within the community, rather than having sprawl along streets, it’s the idea of having a center or two centers that serve the daily needs of the local population,” Vlasic said.

They ultimately envision the southern end of the valley as a non-tourism-centered community that is distinctly different than Moab, yet maintains its close ties to its northern neighbor.

“We don’t want to be necessarily Moab, but we want to be related to (it),” Vlasic said.

“It’s really, I’d say, a bedroom community more than anything else,” he added later.

Today, however, residents like Oblak see one potential conflicting use right in the middle of that growth: Sky Ranch Airport.

The airport’s owners are allowing United Parcel Service (UPS) flights and emergency medical flights to come and go from Sky Ranch, during the official closure of Canyonlands Field Airport for a major runway construction project. They’re also envisioning the development of a residential, noncommercial facility that is governed by covenants that ensure private – and not public – use of the airport in the future.

Vlasic said that the planning team was in the dark about upgrades to Sky Ranch until they were midway through the process – even though the public face of that project, Moab developer Mike Bynum, also serves on the plan’s advisory committee. Bynum could not be reached for comment, but Vlasic said that project planners only learned about the issue after area residents brought the issue to their attention.

“At the time we started this plan, we weren’t aware that this was an active airfield,” he said.

San Juan County does not have specific ordinances in place to ensure that the operations of such facilities are safe and the impacts on surrounding uses are understood. So the document says that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules should apply to Sky Ranch.

“The key thing is that it’s safe,” he said.

Comments on the plan are due by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 27, and can be emailed to spanishvalley@ldi-ut.com. To read the plan, go to: www.ldi-ut.com/uploads/4/9/1/9/4919947/draft_plan_2-13-2018.pdf. For more information, contact Mark Vlasic or Jenny Hale at 801-474-3300.

We know this all depends on the availability of water … There’s a certain amount of water that’s available now; there’s hopes that there will be a lot more water down the road.

Some residents concerned about availability of water in Spanish Valley