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Morgan ski resort lawsuits head toward big decisions in April

By Mark Shenefelt - | Jan 26, 2023

BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo

Morgan residents in opposition to Wasatch Peaks ski development pose for a portrait while wearing masks to comply with coronavirus guidelines on Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at South Morgan Cemetery. A view of the ridge line where the resort will be developed can be seen behind the five residents. Pictured from left: Shelley Paige, Cindy Carter, Dave Pike, Whitney Croft and Robert Bohman.

MORGAN — Litigation over the Wasatch Peaks Ranch private ski development is nearing two key decision points as a group of residents fights for a voter referendum and the resort strives to thwart the effort.

On April 19, 2nd District Judge Noel Hyde will conduct a bench trial on the lawsuit the residents filed in appeal of the Morgan County clerk’s 2019 disqualification of their petition for a referendum on the county council’s approval of the ski project.

Two days before that, Hyde will hear arguments in a related suit, one filed by Wasatch Peaks that accuses the residents of economically damaging interference in the county-approved project.

In the trial, attorneys for five residents — Whitney Croft, Robert Bohman, Brandon Peterson, Shelley Paige and David Pike — are expected to argue that the referendum petition was valid and that the clerk improperly denied it under pressure from Wasatch Peaks. The resort counters that the petition had several procedural deficits that invalidated it according to state law.

After the residents filed suit to revive the referendum, Wasatch Peaks in 2020 sued the five residents and Cindy Carter, who had helped prepare the referendum petition. The resort’s suit sought $10 million in damages for the residents’ alleged interference against the business.

Hyde last year dismissed the resort’s business-interference claim. Then the six residents filed a counterclaim demanding punitive damages from the resort for allegedly filing an unfounded action “for the primary purpose of maliciously harassing, intimidating and punishing” the residents for participating in government.

The April 17 hearing will address the residents’ request that their attorneys be allowed to obtain from the developers information about their finances, for calculation of potential punitive damages.

In a Jan. 11 hearing, Hyde heard arguments on Wasatch Peaks’ motion that the counterclaim be dismissed. According to a transcript of the hearing, Hyde ruled that the developers’ argument that the counterclaim failed to “allege any improper purpose” of the interference suit “is simply not persuasive.”

In their counterclaim, the residents invoked the Utah Participation in Government Act, which protects citizens from malicious suits in development controversies. The act is similar to those in many other states. They are referred to as anti-SLAPP laws — short for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”

Wasatch Peaks has denied nefarious motives. In one court filing, the developer said it “has done nothing more than exercise its constitutional right to pursue its legal claims in the regular course of litigation.” The company alleged that the residents knowingly submitted a legally flawed application for a referendum.

Hyde did not rule on the merits of the allegations the residents made in the counterclaim, but he denied the resort’s dismissal motion, ruling that the litigation may continue.

“At this point, the court rules that it is sufficient to support a claim under the SLAPP Act and that claim may go forward,” he said in the Jan. 11 hearing.

Morgan County leaders approved a resort special district ordinance and a development agreement with Wasatch Peaks allowing the project to commence on an 11,000-acre expanse in the mountains southwest of Peterson. Some residential projects have been approved in the area and ski runs are operational. The project also includes golf course acreage.

Referendum backers argue the development will damage Morgan County’s quality of life and that the claimed economic and tax base benefits are questionable.


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