Resort’s conspiracy suit against Morgan County referendum backers is dismissed
MORGAN — For the second time in less than a month, a small group of Morgan County residents has won a major court decision in their effort to force a voter referendum on the Wasatch Peaks Ranch resort development.
Second District Judge Noel Hyde on Monday filed a notice dismissing a conspiracy and economic interference lawsuit the developers filed last year against the residents.
Earlier in August, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that the residents’ effort to obtain a referendum election must get a new hearing before Hyde.
In that case, the residents appealed Morgan County’s rejection of their referendum application in 2019. The residents sought a referendum after the Morgan County Council approved Wasatch Peaks Ranch’s ski and golf resort project on more than 11,000 acres of prime undeveloped land.
If Hyde rules in the residents’ favor, Morgan County may be required to hold a referendum election on the resort ordinance. The resort has been under construction since early 2020, and the developers’ attorney, Mark Gaylord, said recently the ranch plans to “vigorously litigate” the matter.
In his order this week tossing out the resort’s suit against the residents, Hyde said Wasatch Peaks’ claims of the residents’ alleged conspiracy and intentional interference with its economic interests were not supported.
Robert Bohman, one of the six residents named in the suit, said in a prepared statement that the resort’s suit “was so contrived that it had all the obvious earmarks of a SLAPP,” or strategic lawsuit against public participation.
Such suits are filed by well-financed developers against individuals opposing their projects in the hope of “chilling free speech” and intimidating them with the prospect of defending themselves against time-consuming and costly litigation, he said.
“For the developers, these lawsuits are just the cost of doing business, but for ordinary citizens the cost of defense can far exceed one’s means,” Bohman said. “This lawsuit was not just an attack against the defendants, but also an attack against our democratic process and the Morgan County community and their constitutional right to a referendum.”
Ed Schultz, Wasatch Peaks managing director, said Thursday the suit “was part of our defense, both to protect the company but also to protect the decision by the County Council.”
Hyde’s decision said the residents are shielded from civil liability while exercising their First Amendment rights.
The Morgan County Council in 2019 voted 6-1 to create a resort special district and signed a development agreement with Wasatch Peaks to pave the way for the ambitious project, which includes ski runs, golf courses, housing and other resort amenities. The resort is intended for high-end members who will buy in to the exclusive community. Council members said the project would help the local economy and benefit the tax base.
The residents’ group, which includes Bohman, Whitney Croft, Brandon Peterson, Shelley Paige and David Pike, filed a referendum petition on the final day for such an action in 2019. They argued the resort would harm the community and the environment and that the voters should decide the issue. But the county clerk rejected the petition, saying the proponents were five minutes late for the 5 p.m. deadline. In its intervention on behalf of the county, Wasatch Peaks further argued the petitioners failed to meet proof-of-residency and notarization requirements as well.
Schultz said his company will now return to Hyde’s court to engage again on the referendum question. Wasatch Peaks intervened on the side of the county in the residents’ referendum suit.
“We look at it from the perspective of supporting the Morgan County Council, the elected leaders who made the decision,” he said. “We hope we can keep demonstrating our value to the tax base as well as the employment opportunities.”