MORGAN — Six people fighting for a referendum vote on the Wasatch Peaks Ranch ski resort now face a $5 million suit filed against them by the developer.
Five Morgan County residents who signed the original petition seeking a referendum last fall, plus a woman sympathetic to their cause, were named as defendants in the 2nd District Court civil suit lodged May 14 by Wasatch Peaks Ranch LLC.
The company accuses the six of conspiring to block the development by filing a Utah Supreme Court appeal even after their “legally flawed” referendum drive was turned away by the county clerk and the district court.
The legal tie-ups have forced a delay in a key round of equity financing of the private resort project and deterred additional investments, the resort company’s suit said, citing a loss of at least $5 million.
During an interview with five of the six defendants Tuesday in Morgan, some expressed consternation about being sued as individuals by an apparently well-funded company.
“Some sleepless nights,” said Shelley Paige.
But Paige and others said they have no plans to give up their push for a referendum.
Robert Bohman said he believes the resort’s suit will be dismissed because it has “no legal basis.”
“We are exercising our rights,” he said, contending the county council did not protect Morgan citizens’ rights “like they were elected to do.”
The rezoning at issue and the resort project “should just go to the people and let them decide,” said Whitney Croft.
Another, David Pike, said about 800 people signed a petition against the development as it was being considered by county officials.
The Wasatch Peaks suit came eight days after the five residents filed an appeal with the Utah Supreme Court challenging a March ruling by District Judge Noel Hyde that rebuffed their effort to revive the referendum.
County Clerk-Auditor Stacy Netz Clark had disqualified the referendum petition Nov. 21, saying it failed to meet state law requirements.
The referendum supporters were reacting to the Morgan County Council’s approval of a major zoning change and a development agreement with Wasatch Peaks.
The council voted 6-1 on Oct. 30 to create a Resort Special District zoning area and join in a development agreement with Wasatch Peaks, clearing the way for work to begin.
By refusing to accept the zoning referendum application, Morgan County violated a provision of the Utah Constitution requiring that voters must be given such an opportunity before the challenged law is to take effect, the citizens’ suit contended.
They sought from Hyde an order mandating that officials place the zoning referendum on the ballot “without delay.”
However, even before they could argue the merits of their suit, they first had to attempt to overcome an intervening court petition by Wasatch Peaks, which asserted the district court did not even have jurisdiction to hear the ballot dispute.
Hyde determined he did not have jurisdiction because the law requires a petitioner in such a case to first seek an extraordinary writ from the Utah Supreme Court.
The referendum supporters say there should be a referendum vote because they assert that the county council’s decision was “highly contrary” to the 2008 Envision Morgan zoning blueprint.
They argue the Wasatch Peaks plan upended that roadmap to the detriment of the county’s future. In Croft’s words, it will alter the county’s culture and some of the most pristine areas of the state.
The 11,000-acre resort area will include 3,000 acres of ski terrain with a vertical rise of about 3,000 feet, according to Wasatch Peaks.
A championship-level 18-hole golf course will be built, possibly with an additional 9- or 12-hole par 3 course.
The development agreement allows up to 750 dwelling units. Similar private resorts have mostly a vacation-home population, so Wasatch Peaks expects the same.
Cindy Carter was not one of the referendum signers, but she said she was there the day the petition was presented to the county clerk.
She said she does not know why she was named in the May 14 suit, but she also said she has been vocal about the ski project, and she is running for the council this year.
Carter said her council campaign has nothing to do with the ski resort issues.
In pursuing the referendum appeals, the five signers have formed a political issues group called the Envision Morgan Alliance. The group is accepting donations to help with the costs of the Supreme Court appeal, but they stressed that no alliance funds will be used to defend the five in the suit against them as individuals.
In a prepared statement, the alliance said last week, “The sponsors believe that WPR’s lawsuit is an attempt by WPR to leverage their immense financial advantage over regular citizens of Morgan County to pressure the sponsors to abandon their referendum appeal or, in the alternative, bankrupt the referendum effort.”
Paige said the alliance is trying to get word out about why the referendum was sought “and how the county council pretty much ignored all of the planning and the planning process that has gone on in our county for years and years.”
Wasatch Peaks, in earlier interviews and in the lawsuit against the six individuals, pointed to the extensive public review process that the zoning question and development agreement underwent.
Company officials also hosted open houses and met with concerned residents in their homes to discuss the project, they said.
Robert McConnell, the current Morgan County Council chair, said in an interview Wednesday the review process was extensive and public input was allowed all along.
Speaking as a council member and not in his role as chair, he said Wasatch Peaks was forthcoming with its plans and made a good-faith effort to seek input, and he noted the project will preserve thousands of acres of open space.
As for the alliance’s reliance on the Envision Morgan report and other planning studies, McConnell said “general plans are advisory in nature” and leave room for opposing viewpoints to be argued either way.
McConnell said that in his Mountain Green district he heard from far more people who supported the development.
“Some people didn’t want this to happen, and they’re entitled to their opinion,” McConnell said.