MORGAN — Wasatch Peaks Ranch is under construction in Morgan County, but the 11,500-acre private ski, golf and high-end housing resort is bemoaned by some residents who say it will scar the area’s pastoral character.
Company leaders said in an interview Friday the project will deliver economic and tax revenue benefits to the county with minimal environmental, infrastructure or other community impacts.
“Utah and the Intermountain West is in a growth pattern, which is fortunate and unfortunate,” said Ed Schultz, managing director of the resort’s holding company. “We understand that and respect the rural nature of Morgan County. We do think our impact will be exponentially less than that of a public resort.”
The Morgan County Council voted 6-1 last 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.
But a legal battle instead began immediately, sparked by residents who argued the rezoning damaged preservation that had existed in the county’s long term general plan.
They presented a petition Nov. 6 to force a ballot referendum on the zoning decision, but County Clerk-Auditor Stacy Netz Clark rejected the petition Nov. 21, saying it did not satisfy state law requirements.
The residents then sued the county in 2nd District Court, seeking an order overturning Clark’s decision and opening the way for a referendum.
Morgan County is fighting the suit, joined by Wasatch Peaks, which has filed a petition to intervene and is urging dismissal of the suit. The case is proceeding before Judge Noel Hyde.
“We have had to intervene to protect the county, and because it does obviously affect us,” Schultz said. “We are very confident in those approvals and in the county’s decision and perspective to nullify that petition.”
“That 6-1 vote was telling,” added Bob Wheaton, Wasatch Peaks president and CEO, who formerly ran Deer Valley Resort in Park City for 35 years.
Schultz said the legal tangle has not slowed the Morgan project.
“Our entitlements are in place,” he said. “We continue to pursue our work.”
Geological hazard evaluations are progressing and access roads are under development by the company, Morgan County planning director Lance Evans said.
Wasatch Peaks closed on the property in January 2019, acquiring it from a group that included Snowbasin and Sun Valley owner Earl Holding and Snowbird founder Dick Bass. Schultz declined to give the transaction amount but acknowledged it had been marketed for more than $40 million.
The county council approved the project after 10 months of planning commission study, developer open houses and other preparations.
‘STUNNING MOUNTAIN VIEWS’
Clint Christensen, a Morgan City resident who commutes to Salt Lake City along Interstate 84 with a spectacular view of the resort area and the mountain peaks above, was one of those who spoke against the zoning change.
“Morgan’s greatest assets are its stunning mountain views and its small-town freedom from traffic, crime and pollution,” he said in a letter to the council last year. “It would put Morgan on a path that would be deeply regrettable a decade or two down the road.”
In an interview last week, Christensen said it is disheartening that the council approved such a significant zoning change.
“It suggests that big money is here and big money is talking,” Christensen said.
He said his family moved to Morgan from Draper after explosive growth changed that Salt Lake County community.
“When I grew up in Draper there was one stoplight, a bank and a little grocery store,” he said. “There was a mountainside, but now the whole mountainside has been developed.”
Now here goes Morgan, Christensen said.
“These things are irreversible,” he said. “Once you start you can never get it back. We are living in a naturally beautiful place that has improved the standard of living for everyone. Why we would let the wealthy few have this enjoyment over the many doesn’t make sense.”
DEVELOPMENT PLANS AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Resort designs are in progress and the development will be iterative over the coming months and years, Schultz said. But the ski area itself will cover about 3,000 acres with a vertical rise of about 3,000 feet, he said.
A championship-level 18-hole golf course will be built, possibly with an additional 9- or 12-hole par 3 course, he said.
The development agreement allows up to 750 dwelling units. Similar private resorts have mostly a vacation-home population, so Wasatch Peaks expects the same.
At least 60% of the private acreage must be kept as open space, according to the law, but Schultz said Wasatch Peaks anticipates the total preserved here will be 75% or more.
The ranch property, historically known as the Gailey ranch, had been considered by the previous owners for a public resort, as recently as 2017. Schultz said that could have resulted in 5,000 living units with a much greater impact on the environmental, traffic, infrastructure and services.
Morgan County already approved one Resort Special District zone, a proposed expansion of Snowbasin on the north side of I-84. That expansion, intended as a public resort area, is authorized for 2,447 dwelling units, but the project still has not started.
The Wasatch Peaks land has a lease of 2,500 acre-feet of water from Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.
“We are very focused and have a fine understanding of water rights and the responsibility that goes with that,” Wheaton said. “It is not taken lightly by anybody involved, to see and understand the commitment to the local community, the environment and conservation.”
Economic projections submitted by Wasatch Peaks estimate that at build-out, a 475-unit development would generate $9 million in property tax revenue annually for the county and $25.7 million for the Morgan School District.
Direct annual economic output from the project would reach $37 million after build-out, the company said, adding that the development would create at least 400 jobs with $12 million annually in direct income.
Evans, the county planner, said a separate study by a consultant hired by the county broadly concurred with the company’s projections that economic and tax impacts would be positive.
As for visual impacts, the company plan filed with the county said the base lodge and most residential units will be located in a valley that is minimally visible from the Mountain Green and Morgan City areas. The ski area and some home sites on the lower portions of the property will be visible, it said.
Roland Haslam, a county council member who was chairman when the resort project was approved in October, said Thursday that upon the advice of the county attorney he could not comment about the development because of the referendum litigation.
“Until it gets resolved I’ve got a problem giving my opinion on the Wasatch Peaks,” Haslam said.
Some residents are bothered by the exclusivity of the development, although county officials pointed out it’s already private property with restricted access.
“We’ll never be able to access this potential ‘world class’ resort,” Mountain Green resident George Sousa said in a letter to the county during the zoning process. “Wasatch Peaks Ranch only provides recreational opportunities for its ultra-wealthy. I challenge anyone to argue that our General Plan was written to exclude us, but instead provide for the ultra-wealthy.”
Lyletta Searle of Morgan complained of the “private access for the wealthy playground families.”
“I do not want to look up and in place of our beautiful mountains you want to put ugly rooftop mansions ... and forget about all that the original settlers wanted for their future generations,” she said. “Please do not turn Morgan into another Park City. Please say no to stop destruction of our beautiful mountains.”
But Schultz said the private, vacationer resort, as opposed to a major public development, would not “turn Peterson into Kimball Junction and Morgan into Park City.”