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Wasatch County Council votes yes to conserve 200 acres of North Fields

The Wasatch County Council listens to Laren Gertsch during a public hearing to put a conservation easement on his property.
Grace Doerfler / KPCW
The Wasatch County Council listens to Laren Gertsch during a public hearing to put a conservation easement on his property.

More than 100 people turned out to the Wasatch County Council public hearing Wednesday night, March 6, to support conservation easements in the North Fields.

The Wasatch County Council voted to dedicate about $3 million to help conserve some 200 acres of the agricultural North Fields.

That includes two parcels along River Road known as the Christian Michel property and a 167-acre piece of land owned by Laren Gertsch and his family.

Heber City Mayor Heidi Franco’s voice filled with emotion Wednesday night as she spoke about the Gertsch property. She’s the chair of the Wasatch Open Lands Board.

“This is the highest, most significant contribution that WOLB has ever seen,” she said. “How many of us would be willing to sacrifice literally millions of dollars in that property value in order to preserve their land? That is incredible.”

One Wasatch County resident after another came forward Wednesday night to ask county leaders to protect the fields, nicknamed the “crown jewel” of the Heber Valley by many at the meeting.

“I’m here to celebrate,” Marilyn Crittenden said. “This is the community speaking…. They want you to conserve this. They want this property protected.”

The Gertsch property was the more controversial of the two hearings because the Utah Department of Transportation’s choice of route for a western bypass could affect the land. It’s not clear how much of an obstacle an easement would be to UDOT’s choice, but Heber and Wasatch leaders say they’re trying to both save the North Fields and keep options open to mitigate traffic in the valley.

Landowner Laren Gertsch said he just wants to preserve his family’s land.

“It’s not about the bypass road, it’s not about anything else,” he said. “I guess we want to continue to be ranchers and farmers, and we can do that in this way.”

But Wasatch County Council chair Spencer Park asked whether federal funding towards the easement could be rescinded if UDOT goes through that land.

“We’re all for preserving the North Fields,” he said. “But we don’t want to – there’s another item here that’s been going on longer than 20 years: the bypass that we’re trying to still make sure we don’t destroy the option of having happen.”

The lawyers in the room weighed in at length about the issue of UDOT’s pending announcement and concluded the county could vote to move forward. Everyone involved will continue to work on the specifics of federal funding requirements.

The council voted 6-1 to allot money toward conserving the Gertsch property.

Councilmember Mark Nelson said traffic mitigation is negotiable, but preserving the North Fields is not.

“My feeling is we should just pass this and deal with the rest later,” he said.

Councilmember Luke Searle was the sole “no” vote; he said he still has unanswered questions about the bypass.

The council also voted unanimously to dedicate funds to conserve the Christian Michel property.

After the hearing, residents flocked to congratulate Gertsch. He said he’s been working toward the conservation easement for 20 years.

“This is a historic day because basically, there’s a whole bunch of other North Fields landowners that are interested in doing conservation easements,” he said. “So this is really the tip of the iceberg to preserving Wasatch County in the North Fields.”

Now that the county has pledged money to the easement, Utah Open Lands, county attorneys and the landowner will work with all the funding partners so UDOT will still be able to use eminent domain if they choose a route that goes through the property.