Summit County open space purchase “like buying four Round Valleys”
Summit County has the exclusive right to purchase all the land from Jeremy Ranch to East Canyon State Park. Now, the question is what to do with it.
Attendees stood and applauded after the Summit County Council voted unanimously Aug. 24 to purchase a $15 million option on the 910 Cattle Ranch for open space.
The money goes toward the final purchase price of $55 million. If successful, the acquisition would be Summit County's largest conservation purchase to date at 8,576 acres.
At least 75 people attended Thursday’s hearing and 19 gave public comments. All but one expressed approval in some form or fashion.
One of those who spoke in favor was Leslie Miller, a former Park City Councilmember and the ranch owner’s personal partner. With 25 years of experience on the land, she believes it can become “the crown jewel of Summit County.”
“I love the term open space,” Miller said. “I think it's a little ambiguous, however, because we all bring to it a certain idea and concept about what open space is, should be or could be.”
Different ideas about using and caring for the space were apparent at the meeting. Miller stressed the 910 Cattle Ranch is more than a “recreational Disneyland.”
“In some respects, this property is perfect now; It's a work of art; it's hard for man to improve upon it,” Open Space Advisory Committee member Dick Stoner agreed. “So I think going slowly, treading lightly is probably good advice."
A Hoytzville farmer, Stoner was one of a few eastside residents to give comment. Coalville resident Dennis Wright also expressed approval.
As a rancher, Wright joked he might ask the county for a grazing contract on the property pretty soon. He said it’s good that there are other opportunities for multiple uses for hikers, bikers and the like.
“Everybody gets a piece of the pie, and you [the council] need to be commended for it,” Wright said.
Snyderville Basin Planning Commissioner Thomas Cooke drew applause for his comment on not overdoing the recreation uses.
“The challenge ahead for us will be how we manage the paradox of having such a beautiful, natural open space amenity—the pristine 8500 acres of the 910 Ranch,” Cooke said, “and safeguarding that role into the future from the threat of being loved to death.”
One use that’s been off the table from the beginning has been hunting. Those who know the property owner and seller David Bernolfo agree he has always wanted his ranch to be a refuge, and he’s fought poachers in court.
Utah Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Chapter Chair Perry Hall asked the council if they would reconsider the no-hunting provision, but Council Chair Roger Armstrong said it was “non-negotiable.”
Negotiations have been a long time in the works. The county council initially toured the property in 2017.
Those close to the deal credit Councilmember Chris Robinson as well as County Lands and Natural Resource Director Jess Kirby and Chief Civil Deputy Attorney David Thomas for making it possible.
The only commenter really opposed to the council’s decision Thursday complained it was happening on short notice.
“It's true it looks like it's just happening overnight,” Robinson answered. “It's been in the works off and on with a lot of effort, but not much traction until maybe a year ago, and then more traction in the last two months.”
He said the deal is complicated, not to mention the financing.
“There's an old saying that the opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity,” Robinson said.
The county's deal with Bernolfo is for a $15 million, 3-year option to purchase the property, which could be extended to 4 years for an additional $5 million. The option payments, which come out of the open space bond issued in 2021, count toward the final purchase price of $55 million.
During the option period, the county will lease the property from Bernolfo for about $5,000 a month, meaning the county essentially takes control of the property immediately. 50% of the total rent paid goes toward the final price too.
Simultaneous with the sale of the property, Bernolfo is placing the property in the care of a charitable trust, which is why Robinson said the deal needed to happen quickly. The county will pay the money to the trust, with all $55 million to be donated to the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah.
There are also a couple cell towers on the ranch generating about $70,000 annually, in Armstrong’s estimation. Part of the option agreement is that Bernolfo keeps those until the end of his lifetime, at which point the county can buy them for $1.
Summit County stressed in its announcement of the potential purchase Aug. 22 that it’s simply leasing the property during the option period. Members of the public must not stray from East Canyon Road.
In the meantime, county officials say they will develop plans to manage the property and finance the rest of the purchase, whether through grants or other outside sources. Robinson has said grants are easier to come by now that the county has a signed contract to show for it.
“One way to look at this is it's like buying four Round Valleys,” Robinson said. "One of our big challenges is to make sure that we don't over-love this property, that we find the right balance."
Some people don’t necessarily want the 910 Cattle Ranch become the sort of recreation mecca Round Valley is. How the county balances recreation and conservation remains to be seen.