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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Paradise Lost
News & Columns

Paradise Lost

Shanna Francis grew up in a rural paradise'one she prays doesn’t become a suburban hell.

By Stephen Dark
Posted // June 11,2007 -

When Shanna Francis talks about the graffiti that’s recently scarred buildings in Eden, Utah, tears roll down her cheeks.

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“Radios blast so loud,” she says. “The sounds of the valley have so much value. It’s almost like it’s being desecrated.?

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For the 49-year-old co-publisher, editor and writer of the local biweekly The Ogden Valley News, the transformations she’s seen in Eden and Liberty, communities nestled in the Ogden Valley, all but double her over in pain.

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“I feel like I’m screaming while drowning,” she says about her battle to defend Eden’s rural character. “My valley is part of who I am, what I am. I hate to see it exploited.?

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Before the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Ogden Valley’s stunning natural beauty was a well-kept secret. Its 6,500 population sits nestled in the Wasatch Range on the other side of Ogden’s urban sprawl. But drive up the increasingly congested Ogden Canyon, turn left at the Pineview Reservoir, and 15 minutes later, under an overcast sky, the slopes and the valley floor blaze with orange, red and yellow autumnal trees.

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Fifty dairy farms once covered this valley. Now there’s one. The national decline of family farms alone isn’t to blame. For many locals, the Olympics sounded Ogden Valley’s death knell.

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Three ski resorts'Earl Holding’s Snowbasin, which hosted the games, Powder Mountain and Wolf Mountain'border the valley. News of the underdeveloped ski resorts and cheap land an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City airport leaked out after the Olympics. Well-heeled skiers, property investors and speculators, both at home and abroad, descended on the valley in growing numbers.

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The investors’ impact is startling. Yet-to-be developed parcels are fenced off with red fire hydrants standing guard at the road, as owners await approval to build another subdivision. For-sale signs line the streets. A frenzy of selling appears to have gripped this community. The average asking price for a new listing jumped nearly 75 percent just this year to more than $600,000, according to one local realtor’s figures.

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Francis’ relative Haynes Fuller, a 78-year-old farmer, says the $3.7 million being asked for a 16-acre lakeshore property he describes as “a bunch of stacked firewood” is ridiculous. “But then we live in ridiculous times,” he adds.

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That’s a sentiment many of the old-timers who gather for coffee at the local Maverik station agree with, even as some take their sale checks to the bank.

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No one contests the owners’ rights to sell their slices of rural heaven. In Utah, private-property rights are defended almost as fiercely as the right to bear arms. But in the case of Ogden Valley, Francis points out that such lavish monetary benefits don’t come without costs. Hillsides heave with residential housing while the once crystal air is now a haze of exhaust from construction trucks.

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As a result, the goose that laid the golden egg looks a little sicker each day.

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Citizens of small towns close to natural beauty across America, be they one-time residents of Park City or Jackson Hole, know this story well: The expansion of recreational resorts comes at the expense not only of local communities’ culture and heritage, but even of the community itself.

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Francis has fought for 20 years to save her community. She attended college as an adult to earn a degree in urban planning to help manage development. She worked as a conservationist and twice ran unsuccessfully for Weber County Commissioner. Finally, in 1998, she, with partner Jeannie Wendell, founded The Ogden Valley News.

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Francis has paid a personal price for her battles. What makes that price poignant, even tragic, is how her paper and her family are woven into the very changes she is trying'if not to stop'then at least to shape.

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In a story plagued with irony, one of the biggest is that her paper carries screeds of advertising from the very developers and real estate agents she criticizes for destroying the valley.

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But even that irony pales before the actions of her father, lifelong valley rancher Kent Fuller.

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Fuller recently wrote a piece in his daughter’s paper celebrating the spirit of those who’ve kept the valley’s last dairy farm afloat. At the end of his piece he confessed he’d done the unthinkable. He’d sold off 65 acres to developers'without consulting his daughter.

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“I could have strangled him,” she says. “How can you sell away your birthright?”

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Wolf at the Door
nBefore Mormon settlers arrived here in the 1850s, Ogden Valley was an American Indian summer hunting ground. Arrowheads littered the riverbanks where Francis played as a child. Her ancestors were one of Eden’s founding families, with a Fuller giving birth to the valley’s first pioneer child.

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Francis recalls growing up in her grandparents’ general store in Eden, the Fuller Mercantile, which supported the family farm. “My grandmother taught me how to read by the potbelly stove,” she says.

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She wants to pass just that sort of childhood on to her grandchildren. But with each passing generation, she says, the funnel of access to nature narrows.

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“There’s some new starter homes that have families with kids but with almost no back yard to play in,” she says. “It’s one of the worst subdivisions I’ve ever seen.”

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Yet her grandfather helped start these changes. He bought 640 acres running up to Powder Mountain in the Depression for $34,000. In 1960, he sold 100 acres and irrigation rights to Patio Springs, a small resort on the northern face of the mountains. The water was needed to build a nine-hole golf course.

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“My dad thought it was the sale of a lifetime,” Kent Fuller says. “I’m not sure he’d have done it if he’d known it would change the whole life of the valley.?

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After various business ventures and bankruptcies, Patio Springs became known as Wolf Creek Resort. Then, in 1999, California developer Steve Roberts brought in $2 million and a group of new investors. Roberts and his team revised the 26-year-old master plan, he says, to emphasize more clustering of residential properties and less commercial space. Clustering provides a developer with possible tax benefits and savings on infrastructure while allowing for open space around the homes.

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Of Wolf Creek’s 3,000 acres, two-thirds are zoned as open space, Roberts says. Since part of what the resort is selling is rural scenery, maintaining that open space is obviously essential. But rural views don’t stop the roads from being congested with construction trucks trundling up towards Wolf Creek and estates being built by developers who’ve bought land from the resort. The beep-beep of trucks backing up is the valley’s most constant refrain, along with a rock crusher hammering away five days a week.

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“This used to be a place you could walk and ride,” Francis says. “My lungs won’t take the pollution anymore.?

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Along with the trucks come developments like Moose Hollow’s 14 condominium complexes built by developer Lewis Homes, which stand over Eden like a series of yellow-orange tombstones.

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“Some people love Moose Hollow,” developer Steve Roberts says. “Others compare it to an army barracks.?

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Equally controversial is the Trappers Ridge development, put up by Watts Enterprises. Drive past the half-million-dollar houses with manicured lawns, and you see drawn blinds, empty homes seemingly gathering dust.

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Wolf Creek markets these homes to second-home buyers or investors, Francis says, on the basis that the mortgage can be paid off with nightly rentals.

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It’s these second-home developments, many argue, that are killing off the valley. Young Eden families have sold to developers for very high prices and moved to Ogden for much cheaper property. At the same time, many buying vacation homes in the valley have only an economic stake in the community rather than a communal one. One end result, Francis says, is the shrinking of local LDS wards. The changes didn’t stop there.

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Some properties were not zoned for single-night rentals. Francis splashed the zoning violation across her front page. This was but one example of Francis, zoning ordinance book in hand, calling Wolf Creek out.

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Another was a controversial storage-shed site for 30 RVs that was built too close to the road. Then there was the resort’s plans to fill in wetlands to provide parking-lot space for its balloon festival. Roberts denies the land in question was wetlands. Francis also blew the whistle on a sign Wolf Creek posted at Eden’s main intersection despite an ordinance prohibiting off-site signage. Roberts says his new sign only replaced an existing one. It was later taken down.

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For Roberts, Francis “is someone from a very conservative background who’s an activist writing in a liberal fashion. It’s a prescription for disaster.”

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Francis accepts that, in the case of her story on dubious nightly rentals, she crossed the line of objectivity expected in journalism.

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“I have heavy biases,” she says. “I have to manage those and give a clear perspective.?

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A born-again Christian, Roberts is fond of quoting Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He was at first wary of picking a fight with Francis but, after several conversations, his irritation at her paper is apparent.

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If anything goes wrong, he says, she’s quick to put it on the front page. One example was a sewage spillage Roberts says was caused by a power outage. Wolf Creek has since received a low-interest loan from the state to build a new treatment plant. Francis wonders why the resort wasn’t fined instead.

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Wolf Creek’s success is something of a Holy Grail for Roberts. Diagnosed with terminal bone-marrow cancer and given six months to live shortly before buying into Wolf Creek almost seven years ago, Roberts credits his faith for his longer life.

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“Even if I passed away tomorrow, I am confident that what we are doing at Wolf Creek is good, honest and above reproach.” Later he adds, “If not, I need to be called on it, and I will make amends.?

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The Weber County Planning Department won’t be calling him on any violations'unless someone complains that is. Eden is unincorporated, which means zoning restrictions are often as few as they sometimes are unenforceable. Weber County’s planning department is understaffed and underfunded, Francis says, and complaints are all its code enforcement officer can respond to. County planning office administrator Jim Gentry says those complaints are enough to keep the officer busy.

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Weber County Commissioner Camille Cain doesn’t support a more proactive approach. “I don’t really think it’s necessarily the best way to spend money to whip people into shape,” she says. “There’s a huge negative side to that. People live in unincorporated areas because they want fewer restrictions, not more.”

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Calling Roberts or any other developer on code violations falls then to the valley’s citizens. Which means, among others, Francis’ paper.

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“Unless someone holds their feet to the fire, they get away with as much as they can,” Francis says.

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Give and Take
nFrancis started the paper because in the valley’s general store, especially during the ski season, she never saw anyone she knew. “The community lacked the cohesion of when I grew up,” she says.

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Through the paper, she hoped to bring the community together and provide a platform to address political and conservation issues. But in the process, some argue she’s only fed the very monster she sought to rein in.

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Her first edition made $25. “I didn’t do it for the money, but it turned out to be a good business venture,” she admits. She says the paper makes 200 times its first profit every month. That has allowed her to now work on the paper full-time. She plans to take it weekly in a year.

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Browse through The Ogden Valley News and it’s clear where the gravy comes from. Full-color ads for local realtors dominate many pages.

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When Francis dropped off the most recent edition at the Ogden Valley library, a man hollered, “I used to really like reading your paper. Now all you have are real-estate ads.” The criticism doesn’t escape her. “Ouch,” she says softly.

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Try and pin her down on what some see as a hypocritical position, and Francis squirms on the hook of her own uncertainty, never quite seeming to answer the question.

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But, while the ads come in, that doesn’t necessarily mean those placing them are happy.

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Roberts has had numerous conversations with Francis, he says, about placing ads in a paper that routinely front-pages derogatory articles about his resort.

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“They do spend a lot of money with us,” she says. “But I’m not afraid to put out the truth because he’s the hand that feeds me, so to speak.?

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That hand has, on occasion, temporarily pulled ads.

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“I think about it [advertising in the paper] all the time,” Roberts says.

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The issue of making a living from people whom she criticizes saddens her. “It’s not about the dollars,” she says, adding she’ll think about a new policy. But then she says if people want to advertise, she’s not going to discriminate against them.

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Seven months ago, one realtor was sufficiently peeved to pull her ad'but then came back to advertise the following month, Francis says.

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But while Wolf Creek and realtors bring in the bucks, the true draw for particularly her 289 subscribers, are the “historicals?'as she calls her articles drawing on settlers’ journals that celebrate pioneer heritage.

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“People like to be grounded,” Francis says.

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That her paper feeds her readers’ need for a history their purchases are erasing is an irony, she agrees, but she says her goal is keeping Ogden Valley’s heritage alive. “I want to remind people about the past so they can build a future on it.?

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Winning or Losing
n“The Weber County Commissioners don’t do all they can to respect the communities, but they do go the extra mile to protect developers’ interests,” Francis alleges.

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That perception led a group of Edenites to start a movement for incorporation three years ago. The change would have given Eden legal autonomy to decide its own affairs, but concern over how much taxes would go up to pay for public services killed the incorporation drive. This was right before housing values skyrocketed and property taxes doubled.

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Despite the failure of incorporation, there have been victories to report. Most notable was a Utah Supreme Court decision overturning the sale by the Weber County Commissioners, allegedly without public consultation, of 160 acres of county land.

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Winning or losing, for Francis perhaps the most painful aspect of her reporting is the apathy she encounters. “I put information out there, but it’s like I’m hitting my head against the wall,” she says.

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Francis puts notices of public meetings on the front page, boxed and in bold type, says an irritated Roberts. At least, he adds, no one can complain they didn’t know about them. He notes Francis attends only a third of the planning meetings.

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Put this question to Francis and her pain is apparent. Four years ago, she says, she was almost ready to throw in the towel.

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“All I was doing was attending meetings. I was burned out, frustrated. I wasn’t making progress, it was an uphill battle no matter how hard I worked.?

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But lately she’s put more emphasis on activism, sitting on the board of the Ogden Valley Land Trust, which manages development rights to 6,000 acres donated to conserve open space in perpetuity.

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Whether activist or journalist, Francis’ nemesis, she says, is anything or anyone who wants to exploit the valley. Her nemesis recently took on a new face, one closer to home than she could ever have expected.

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The Ironic Shame of It All
n“Newcomers are the fiercest advocates for saving the valley,” Francis says. She welcomes anyone who wants to sink roots in Ogden Valley. “People think of houses as things, as commodities or an investment. That’s why we’ve losing that sense of community.?

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Watching oldtimers dismantle the community that remains is all the more painful for her. “Why is this generation [of owners] the one that has to sell out?” she cries.

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Her 75-year-old father says, “I felt bad I couldn’t hang on. I couldn’t find a program that would compensate the income [from running cattle and horses] and leave [the property] in agriculture.”

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Fuller admits being gullible about selling the land. It’s a bitter pill that the “newies,” as he calls them, “flipped” the 65 acres they bought from him 60 days after their purchase. “Flip” is a verb you hear a lot in these parts. In Fuller’s case, it means anonymous investors putting the land back on the market at double the price.

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But while Francis struggles to come to terms with the sale, Fuller has at least found solace in a new Eden. He’s bought 50 acres in Box Elder County’s small town of Deweyville, population 278, with part of his proceeds.

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Francis sits on the edge of her chair, looking at her father. She can’t close her eyes to the consequences of development, be they environmental, cultural or personal.

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But her father’s conscience is clear as he reminisces about his father shooting a mountain lion. “He’d been loading cattle feed, and he spotted these lion tracks leading into the barn,” Fuller says.

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“The lion saw my dad and shut its eyes. My father felt ashamed to shoot it.?

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Shame, however, didn’t save the mountain lion from Fuller’s bullet. Nor, it seems, will shame keep developers from churning up the valley’s beauty, or Edenites from railing against them even as some take their checks.

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This month, 150 real estate investors were bussed in from Salt Lake City to, as a realtor puts it, “preview our beautiful valley.?

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They may just be the tip of the iceberg.

 
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