Ross High in front of his home on Kane Creek Boulevard. [Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

Mike Newbold and Ross High were neighbors on Kane Creek Boulevard for about a decade. They were part of a quirky neighborhood wedged between the Colorado River and the Behind the Rocks Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Area: Motorists driving by the neighborhood on their way to popular recreation areas may have noticed an eclectic scattering of trailers, vehicles, landscaping and hand-painted signs vending firewood or reminding drivers to slow down.

Before a handful of tenants began renting space on the property, it was a farm and ranch: In the 1960s, previous owner Ralph Miller kept thousands of chickens in caves blasted out of the sandstone cliffs for that purpose. The chickens supplied eggs for the Miller Market, and Kane Creek Boulevard was known for years as “Egg Ranch Road.”

A development company bought the property this summer, and the owners envision a new subdivision with eco-friendly homes and the potential for modest-scale commercial activity to be built over the next few years. The new owners have told the renters—eight households—that they’ll have to find a new place to live.

Tenants asked to leave

Some residents along Kane Creek Boulevard owned and lived in trailers and rented space on the property; High lived in a studio in a cave that was blasted into the sandstone cliff in the 1950s. He said it was originally used to store mining equipment; it was also used to house chickens during the egg ranch days. High said the Kane Creek neighbors looked out for each other.

“All of us are good friends down here,” said High. “We’re like our own little corporation.”

In mid-September, Newbold, who has lived on the property for 14 years, and High, who lived in his cave apartment for 10 years, were served 15-day eviction notices. The remaining tenants were also told they should start looking for alternative housing, though the new property owners said they haven’t set a deadline for those tenants to move. One of those households moved out ahead of any notice, developers said; two other households are targeting the end of November as a move-out date, and three more households remain on the site. The new property owners say they’re working with the renters to determine a plan, and meanwhile waiving rent for all remaining tenants.

Future subdivision

Development plans for the property are in preliminary stages and subject to change, but early proposals include about 500 new housing units, with the possibility of some commercial centers.

Trent Arnold and Craig Weston are partners in the Highland, Utah-based company, called Kane Creek Preservation and Development. The roughly 180-acre parcel is mostly zoned Highway Commercial, with a zoning density of 18 residential units per acre. In a conversation with the Moab Sun News, Arnold said the company plans to build slowly and deliberately over the next several years, with consideration for the landscape and ecosystem, sustainability, and community benefit. Arnold emphasized the word “preservation” in the company’s name.

“We are going to develop the property, but there’s a right way to do that and a wrong way to do that,” Arnold said. For example, he said the property zoning could allow for thousands of residential units, but they want to preserve the area and are planning a much smaller development.

Arnold said that the property along Kane Creek Boulevard adjacent to the river, which the company has owned for three years, will be used as a native plant nursery to supply landscaping needs for the rest of the development. They’re also partnering with the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the Bureau of Land Management to remove invasive species along the river corridor.

Tony Mancuso is the Sovereign Lands specialist for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, a division of the DNR. Mancuso said his agency has assisted with habitat conservation in the area with the previous landowners as well as the current owners. The work includes removing noxious weeds, Russian olive and tamarisk trees to protect native Fremont cottonwood trees.

“In addition to the simple removal, the current landowners also provided personnel and equipment to help FFSL demonstrate “biochar production”; a process whereby the branches and trunks of invasive trees are converted into a charcoal-like material that is added to soil to sequester carbon and increase water holding capacity,” Mancuso wrote in an email to the Sun News.

The property has wells which Arnold said tap into a different aquifer than the one that supplies the Moab Valley. The developers plan to install their own efficient wastewater treatment plant on site and return 90% of the water used back into the ground. Homes in the subdivision will be built with solar orientation in mind.

“You’re going to see a ton of solar, a ton of renewable building materials,” Arnold said of the new development.

Grand County is currently in the process of pursuing a Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) grant to improve Kane Creek Boulevard; Arnold said the company plans to be involved in that planning process.

The company is seeking commercial operators who may be interested in locating on the property. Arnold mentioned outdoor gear manufacturing as one industry the company would welcome. They’re aware, he said, of Grand County’s desire to diversify its economy, and hope they can contribute to that goal.

Grand County Economic Development Director August Granath said his department has had a few conversations with the developers “in order to understand their goals for the project.”

 “The developers envision a residential and commercial project that could provide tangible community benefits including affordable housing and economic diversification,” Granath said. “They would have to do it in such a way that offsets community members’ concern about developing that stretch of the Colorado and the displacement of current residents. Ultimately, it is up to the developers to meaningfully partner with the community and deliver on those benefits.”

Arnold said his company is also aware of the affordable housing problem in Moab, noting that the company has a partner with capital ready to invest in an affordable housing project in Grand County, if they can identify a suitable property to purchase. Arnold said they’d prefer to site that affordable housing on a different property where they’re poised to move more quickly, rather than on the Kane Creek property.

“We want to be very intentional and make the right decisions,” said Arnold. The company is meanwhile helping tenants find new places to live, but Arnold noted that “those efforts are incredibly challenging in the Moab area right now.”

Finding new homes

Arnold said the company is working with the current tenants to help them find alternative housing. In the meantime, Kane Creek Preservation and Development is not collecting rent from tenants, beginning in August or September, Arnold said. For some, the company is offering financial assistance to move.

“We’re trying to be as compassionate as we can be and find solutions for everyone,” Arnold said of the current tenants, noting that some of the existing housing in the area would not meet health department standards.

Liz Donkersloot, Housing Resource Coordinator for the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, confirmed that Arnold has contacted the organization regarding finding housing for tenants, though they haven’t reached any formal arrangement. Donkersloot said the MVMC has worked with a few individuals relocating from the Kane Creek Boulevard property, and successfully found a new home for one person. Some of the other tenants gave interviews on local radio station KZMU, saying they don’t know where they’re going to go. Relocating residents is challenging, as housing options are scarce, especially affordables ones. There are usually waiting lists for all affordable housing programs managed by the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah.

High said he contacted the MVMC to ask for legal assistance in resisting the 15-day eviction notice he received. He lives on social security and has multiple disabilities, he said—he can’t easily find alternative housing or shift to camping on public land.

High said the new landowners agreed not to enforce the eviction as long as he was actively looking for somewhere else to go, though they declined to put the extension in writing. He also acknowledged that the new landowners said he didn’t have to pay rent, but should put that money toward securing a new place to live. Arnold said relations between the company and High and Newbold had been problematic, but both tenants said they didn’t expect to be evicted.

“I don’t know why he chose the two of us at random,” said High of himself and Newbold, on why they were the only two people to receive 15-day eviction notices. Newbold has already vacated the property, and said he was ready to leave Moab entirely anyway, considering the evolution of the town, which he said has changed beyond recognition.

“I’m really unhappy with the direction that Moab is going,” he said. “No regulation, no enforcement, no accountability.”

Newbold said he has been involved with community organizations in Moab, including taking photos for this newspaper and stocking and distributing food at the Grand County Food Bank. He recounted how he had already watched Kane Creek Boulevard change over the years. The once-quiet back road has become a busy corridor, offering access to recreation areas for off-roaders, hikers, mountain bikers, rock climbers, and cliff jumpers.

“Enough is enough is enough,” Newbold said. “Too much, too fast, too loud: bigger, bigger, bigger.”

Newbold said the 15-day eviction notice was a surprise to him.

“I was never told any reason,” he said. “Just a constable came up and delivered the papers. I was a little bit shocked, there was no warning.” He added that his name was misspelled on the notice and the address was incorrect. High also noted that the eviction notice he received was short of professional.

“It says on the eviction paper, ‘If you have any questions feel free to call,’ but there’s no phone number on it,” said High.

Both Newbold and High observed that the development company name, “Preservation and Development,” can come off as ironic.

“Those contradict each other, you know,” said High.