Developers Use Olympics
To Grab Utah Land

By Stephen R. Miller
Environmental News Network

( - Developments sprawl near Park City, Utah. Utah skiing used to be known for its rustic no-frills atmosphere, but developers at the dozen resorts just miles from Salt Lake City are seizing the Olympic moment to turn the mountains into a playground for the jet set.
"Ski industry development has been phenomenal," said Gavin Noyes, director of Save Our Canyons, an environmental group trying to curtail the growth. "It has not been a Salt Lake Organizing Committee initiative, but the resorts have used the Olympics to do a tremendous amount of development."
That has not set well with local environmentalists. "The principle environmental legacy of these games is Snowbasin, which is an environmental catastrophe," said Dan Schroeder, head of the Ogden Chapter of the Sierra Club.
In 1984, Earl Holding, an oil magnate and one of the country's richest men, bought Snowbasin. At the time, it was a resort known mostly to purists who reveled in the slope's ideal conditions and spartan atmosphere. The resort is nestled in the heart of one of the most spectacular mountain crests in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
It didn't take long for Holding to announce his intentions for the land. One year after purchasing Snowbasin, Holding proposed a 2,500-acre land exchange with the Forest Service with the intent of developing it into a posh resort with top-notch lodges and condominiums. Holding also owns Sun Valley, the exclusive Idaho resort, and by all appearances, he was looking to build a replica in Utah.
The Forest Service countered with a 200-acre proposal, and after some haggling, Holding asked for 1,320 acres. Again the Forest Service said no. "I cannot in good conscience dispose of public land for that purpose," wrote Dale Bosworth in 1990, then the forest supervisor of the Wasatch-Cache forest.
Stymied by the Forest Service, Earl Holding turned to his friends in Washington. In 1996, Utah representative James Hansen introduced the Snowbasin Land Exchange Act in the House. Shortly thereafter, Orrin Hatch introduced a similar bill in the Senate. It helped that Holding had contributed $30,000 to Hatch's legal defense fund and at least $24,000 toward the congressmen's campaigns.
On the surface, the bill looked like a good deal for the government: Holding would exchange almost 12,000 acres of land he owned throughout Utah for the 1,320 acres of land adjacent to Snowbasin he had sought for more than a decade.
However, most of the 12,000 acres Holding owned were virtually worthless. Many of the tracts of land had no roads; others were good for cattle grazing and little else. They were all remote. In exchange, Holding would get some of the most valuable land in Utah.
In 1996, the land swap was made law as part a larger national parks bill. Now Holding is free to develop the land as he wishes. That includes more than $70 million in renovations, including a new 45,000-square-foot ski lodge and a new ski lift to equip the slope for the Olympics.
But Gray Reynolds, general manager of Snowbasin, notes that the land swap was in line with the mission of the Forest Service, which is to provide a boost to local economies. Plans include a four-season resort, and "the horseback riding and the skeet shooting and the golf and the swimming and tennis will be developed here," Reynolds told reporters on the eve of the Olympics. "Both the public and Mr. Holding benefited." Before going to work for Holding, Reynolds worked for the Forest Service and testified before Congress in favor of the land swap.
For as much controversy as Snowbasin has received, it is only one part of a more concerted effort by the ski industry to make the Wasatch Mountains the next hot ticket for the elite. Much of that development has been in the Park City area, already host to the Sundance Film Festival. The population of the area has nearly doubled in the last decade, making it the fastest growing part of Utah.
"Since Salt Lake City won its Olympics bid, there has been between $300 million and $500 million invested in ski resorts, with another $200 million on mountain improvements in the area," said Gavin Noyes of Save Our Canyons.
Three resorts near Park City " Deer Valley Resort, The Canyons, and Park City Mountain Resort " are creating substantial developments in the Wasatch Mountains. Deer Valley and The Canyons both received failing grades from Ski Area Citizens Coalition, an organization that rates ski resorts' environmental records, largely because of their rampant development. The organization gave the area's other major resort, Park City Mountain Resort, a "C."
"Skiing isn't a great business, but real estate is," said Ivan Weber, a developer who built the first Deer Valley lodge and now works for the Sierra Club. All three resorts and outside developers have vigorously sought to develop not only ski resorts but also luxurious residences on and adjacent to their properties. And in Summit County, where Park City is located, the median house price is now 50 percent higher than in the rest of Utah.
Most of the wealthy new residents are coming from Southern California, just an hour's flight away. "Southern California is our major market, no doubt about it," local realtor Steve Chin told reporters. The average home price in Park City is $500,000, but the most exclusive residences can run up to $10 million.
At Deer Valley, 2,200 condominiums were approved for development in 1997. Since then, at least 1,500 have already been built. The resort also added more than 2,000 acres of skiing terrain and a third lodge in recent years.
The Canyons has nearly 2,500 acres set aside for real estate development and has added 1,900 new acres of skiing area since 1997, doubling its terrain. In a nearby development called The Colony, homes as large as 35,000 square feet are available in a gated community.
Park City Mountain Resort spent $12 million to build a 54,000-square-foot day lodge at the resort's base and has built three new lodging complexes since 1997. It has also spent at least $35 million since 1995 upgrading its lift facilities.
Park City and Deer Valley are both sites of Olympic competition.
"The land around Park City was probably doomed anyway, but the Olympics accelerated and altered the type of development there," said Weber. "It is artificially high-end expansive sprawl, and I would assert that it cannot be sustained."
Just two weeks ago, a proposal was made to convert 1,600 acres of land, known as Bonanza Flats, into a year-round resort. The list of proposed developments includes a gated community with 160 single-family homes, 70 condominiums, a 40,000-square-foot lodge, an 18-hole golf course, and a ski lift connecting to the Park City Mountain Resort and the Deer Valley Resort.
"We realize there are strong emotional attachments to the land in Bonanaza," said the developer, Rory Murphy, at a Wasatch County Commission meeting. "That is why we have gone to such great lengths to minimize visual disturbance and implement environmental enhancements."
Even with developers' attempts to reduce the impact of development, the Park City area is already sprawling, and there is more to come. "We're expecting another 80 percent expansion in resort terrain over the next 5 to 10 years," said Noyes.
A decision on the Bonanza Flats development is expected next month.
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