This sidewalk leading to the San Miguel Trail behind the Cinema Court Apartments was previously barricaded. County officials finalized a settlement agreement this week with two property owners that clears the way for the county to reopen the trail. [Moab Sun News file photo]

The long-running legal dispute over a nonmotorized neighborhood pathway through the Grand Vu Park Subdivision appears to be a thing of the past.

Grand County Council members voted 5-1 on Tuesday, May 15, to accept a settlement agreement with two property owners who had previously contested the San Miguel Trail’s right-of-way through their cul-de-sac; vice chair Curtis Wells voted against the majority, and Rory Paxman was not present.

In exchange for property owners Drew Roots’ and Virginia Shuey’s consent, council chair Mary McGann said that county officials agreed to install fencing, signage and other improvements to mitigate potential impacts from trail users on the two homes at the end of San Miguel Street.

“It’s a really good compromise,” McGann told the Moab Sun News. “I think the county attempted to make it as palatable as possible for the property owners.”

However, the two sides reached that compromise only after years of protracted litigation that cost the county and its taxpayers an estimated $170,000, according to Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald — which gives McGann some heartburn.

“I think it’s a shame that we had to spend so much money on it,” she said.

That’s one concern that Shuey’s daughter Monica Shuey Skowbo shared as recently as last month, questioning why the money had been spent on the San Miguel Trail dispute, when bike lanes are already in place on nearby Mill Creek Drive.

“I believe there should be better accountability for how taxpayer dollars are spent by the Grand County Council,” Skowbo said in a letter to the editor of the Moab Sun News.

Roots declined to comment until he and Shuey have had an opportunity to review the county council’s action, which came after council members went into closed session to discuss the agreement. But Fitzgerald, who said he’s fully aware that the homeowners would rather not have the trail in front of their properties, commended the pair for their consideration of the settlement.

“I just want to say that we appreciate their willingness to reach an agreement,” Fitzgerald told the Moab Sun News. “I know it’s hard for them.”

A local Eagle Scout built the San Miguel Trail and a bridge behind the Cinema Court apartment complex in 2009, and until 2011, pedestrians and bicyclists used the route across Pack Creek as an alternative to congested roads in the neighborhood.

In 2011, though, a county-hired surveyor issued a disputed report which found that the Shuey family and Roots owned two “waste parcels” on a narrow strip of land near the mouth of the trail. Based on those findings, the property owners built a fence that cut off public access through the San Miguel cul-de-sac.

Fitzgerald, however, long maintained that the developers of the Grand Vu Park Subdivision created public easements to potentially extend roads or other infrastructure in the future, noting that the waste parcels are the same width as San Miguel Street. Regardless of the surveyor’s conclusions, Fitzgerald has said that the county must have access to a nearby property it acquired at a tax sale, which is only accessible via the once-disputed section of the trail.

Roots previously told the Moab Sun News that he moved to the very end of the cul-de-sac for a reason, and wanted a return to the peace and quiet he experienced before the trail was in place.

Over the years, he has said, he witnessed the accumulation of litter and dog excrement along the trail area in and around Pack Creek, as well as incidents of vandalism to his car. He also questioned the safety of the trail, telling the Moab Sun News in 2015 that he watched numerous children wipe out on their bikes along a hilly section near his home.

Until attorneys for both sides announced in February that they were close to resolving the issue, the question of who owned the waste parcels remained the main point of contention between the property owners and county officials. The disagreements were so sharp that not even the Utah Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman could resolve them when it was asked three years ago to mediate the dispute.

The case ultimately stopped just short of the trial phase in 7th District Court. Minutes after a bench trial was set to begin in February 2018, defense attorney Philip C. Patterson informed 7th District Judge Lyle R. Anderson that his clients were no longer disputing the county’s ownership of the waste parcels at the end of the cul-de-sac.

“…[We’re] simply not contesting that the trail can be brought across the Pack Creek drainage from its north bank to its south bank onto San Miguel, and then use San Miguel, as I would understand, as a nonmotorized trail right-of-way,” Patterson said at the time.

County officials had been close in the past to reaching an agreement that could have resolved the dispute, but Fitzgerald said that work collapsed under a previous county council, leading to the additional costs.

“The politics seem to be much larger than the legal issue — or just overtook the legal issue — which is unfortunate, because it’s hard to get things done,” Fitzgerald said, thanking current council members for their support.

Once it’s open again, the trail will connect the Grand Vu neighborhood and areas to the south with the Cinema Court apartment complex, the new Valley View Subdivision and Moab’s central core, offering what Fitzgerald calls a safe alternative to bicyclists who might otherwise travel on U.S. Highway 191. It gives him the chills, he said, to think of kids — or even adults — riding their bicycles along the increasingly congested highway south of town.

“I think [the San Miguel Trail] will literally save lives,” Fitzgerald said. “The time and effort that went into [the settlement agreement] will be small compared to the benefit to the community.”

Safety notwithstanding, Fitzgerald anticipates that the route will ultimately increase the values of not only Roots’ and Shuey’s homes, but other properties in the neighborhood, noting that real estate agents “always” tout a home’s proximity to amenities like parks and trail systems.

“There’s a long-term benefit of having that access to that trail for many, many years,” he said.

Trail volunteers could likely finish improvements to the trail’s right-of-way in the span of a single weekend, and Fitzgerald said he’s hopeful that Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine’s office can get started on the project in the immediate future.

“I’m going to ask (Levine) to go right away — get it done,” he said. “I think that the work will start quite soon.”

Under the settlement agreement, the county gave the two property owners easements to use portions of the waste parcels, as long as those uses don’t interfere with the trail. The county, in turn, will limit the footprint of the right-of-way corridor to about 12 feet, Fitzgerald said, although the pathway itself will be about 8 feet wide.

“We wanted a bigger one, just to give us more options, but the landowners preferred a smaller one,” he said.

Now that such issues have been settled, he said, attorneys for the two sides must formally notify judge Anderson that they have reached an agreement that puts the matter to rest.

“The judge likely won’t see us again in his courtroom on this issue,” Fitzgerald predicted.

McGann, too, is confident that the dispute has been resolved once and for all.

“I’m glad we could put it behind us,” she said.

Council members vote 5-1 in favor of San Miguel settlement agreement

“I think [the San Miguel Trail] will literally save lives … The time and effort that went into [the settlement agreement] will be small compared to the benefit to the community.”

– Andrew Fitzgerald