Sonja Nicolaisen accepts a commemorative pin and certificate from her supervisor, Andrea Brand, for five years of service at Sand Flats Recreation Area. [Photo by Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

Grand County Council met Tuesday, Dec. 17 for their regular meeting to discuss the 2020 budget, a property tax increase and the county’s evolving development standards for overnight accommodations. There was also an update on the change of government process and a show of appreciation for long-time county employees.

Taxes and budget

Throughout the fall, the council has been preparing for a vote on a property tax increase to meet growing operational costs. A budget workshop just before the regular meeting ironed out the final details of the proposed 2020 budget, which does include the tax hike.

County Clerk Chris Baird gave a summary of the tax increases at the regular meeting.

The impact of the increase on county residents, Baird said, would be an average yearly increase of $111.61 on residential properties and an average yearly increase of $202.93 on commercial properties. Those numbers are calculated using the average value of a Grand County land parcel, which is $242,000. The residential and commercial increases are different because residential properties are taxed at 55% of their assessed value, while commercial properties are taxed at their full assessed value.

In compliance with Utah Truth in Taxation laws, the council began issuing public notices back in October to advise county residents of the highest possible increase being considered.

“To cut to the bottom line… as it stands right now, General Fund property tax revenue would go up by $1,349,506,” he said. “It was originally noticed at $2,111,000, so that’s a decrease of $761,494 from what was originally noticed.”

The council voted to approve the budget including the tax increase, with Councilmember Rory Paxman in opposition. Councilmember Curtis Wells did not attend the meeting.

Also discussed at the budget workshop were cost-of-living adjustments for county employees, which raise wages by 1.7%. According to Baird, this effectively raises the minimum county wage from $14.56 to $14.81 per hour. The adjustments for non-elected county workers were included in the budget, but to change the salaries of elected officials, there must be a public hearing.

The council voted to implement these incremental raises for all county employees and elected officials except council members, who declined to apply the adjustment to themselves. Councilmember Greg Halliday voted in opposition.

Overnight accommodation standards being refined

Both the City of Moab and Grand County have been working to create sets of similar “development standards” which would apply to all new overnight accommodations built in their respective jurisdictions. Like the city’s standards, the county’s ordinance seeks to address energy use, water use, transportation considerations, mixed-use spaces, aesthetics and density. The council and city both aim to steer developers towards clean energy, conservative water use and thoughtful integration with surrounding properties.

For example, the ordinance would require new hotels and motels to produce 80% of their energy onsite and for new campgrounds to produce 5% of their energy onsite or else to offset their energy use by buying energy credits. New overnight accommodations would be limited to 10% of their landscaped area as grass and must install a rainwater catchment system.

On Dec. 10, the County Planning Commission voted to recommend that the council adopt the draft ordinance after a public hearing on their proposed standards. County staff at the Department of Community and Economic Development also support the proposed ordinance outlining the development standards.

However, staff and commission members disagreed on “Eligibility Districts,” which would further limit the areas where new overnight accommodations could be built. The Planning Commission recommended the Eligibility Districts; county staff does not. In an unofficial vote on Dec. 3, the County Council did not express support for the more restrictive districts.

In their report, county staff also advised the council to implement some incentives for commercial uses other than overnight accommodations with the goal of diversifying the economy.

A few members of the public stood to comment on the development standards. Grand County resident Liz Thomas thanked the council while at the same time imploring them to plan carefully.

“It would be nice to save some property south of town so that other businesses that actually would help diversify our community and potentially add benefit to our community wouldn’t have to compete with overnight accommodation developers,” Thomas said, noting that a lot of property south of Moab is “just getting gobbled up” by overnight lodging developers.

The council scheduled a workshop to examine the development standards ordinance before their next regular meeting on Jan. 7. The public can submit comments on the draft online to or drop them off in person at the council administrator’s office at 125 E. Center St. They will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 30.

Change of government in sight

Walt Dabney is a member of the Grand County Change of Government Study Committee, which is tasked with recommending a change in form of government to conform to new state law. Dabney announced that the committee has completed their work, revising and resubmitting their plan for review. The change in government is slated to appear before voters on the 2020 ballot.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” he said of the project, reminding the council that the committee was delayed in beginning their task due to a lawsuit over the appointment of the committee.

The committee had previously submitted a recommendation for a five-member council with a manager, who would be appointed by the council and have executive power, to County Attorney Christina Sloan for review in August 2019. However, Sloan noted several changes that needed to be made to the plan to meet state standards, which pushed the timeline back and made it impossible to place the issue on the 2019 voting ballot.

The most substantial change Sloan’s review demanded involved voting districts. The original plan called for two of the council seats to represent a rural and an urban district, but Sloan pointed out that specifying the districts is beyond the legal purview of the committee. A previous survey run by the committee showed that there was roughly even support for an all at-large council and a combination of at-large and districted seats, so the group opted to amend their recommendation to an all at-large council.

“I didn’t know how this was going to go,” Dabney said in summary. “The seven of us who were on this study committee truly, in my estimation, represent the full spectrum of political ideas and feelings on all kinds of things, and in nine months I never experienced a moment of ugliness from this group.”

At the study committee meeting on Dec. 13, Committee Chair Stephen Stocks was enthusiastic about finalizing the plan quickly, pointing out that if another delay resulted it could push the timeline to where, by law, the study committee will cease to exist.

If voters say yes to the plan on the 2020 ballot, the first council members voted in under the new form of government will start their terms in 2022. Three of them would serve four-year terms, and the other two would serve a two-year term. After the first two years, all council members would serve staggered four-year terms.

If voters reject the plan, then the county will default to a three-member commission form of government.

“The only back-up transition plan I would say in that case is two words: good luck,” Dabney commented at the Dec. 13 committee meeting, to laughter.

Employees recognized for their service

At this last meeting of 2019, the council took a moment to look back at the years and appreciate county employees for their service. Certificates and awards were presented for employees who have worked for various county departments for five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or more years.

Sonja Nicolaisen was one employee recognized for five years of service at the Sand Flats Recreation Area. Her supervisor, Sand Flats Recreation Area Director Andrea Brand, praised her work.

“She has been so important as a team member, out there patrolling our trails by mountain bike,” Brand said of Nicolaisen. “And she’s such a caring person. She cares so much, not only about the land and the plants but also about the visitor’s experience at Sand Flats.”