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Cover Story

River Rats Page 3

For those crazy enough to try and save the Jordan River from developers, the enemy is always at the door.

By Stephen Dark
Posted // June 10,2009 -

Galena’s future has been consumed by a war of words over alleged conflicts of interest. From November 2008 through March 2009, angry and often vitriolic claims surrounded negotiations between UTA and the Draper City Council. A key point of contention from the river activists’ point of view was that a UTA board member involved in discussions with Draper allegedly did not reveal his financial interest in the proposed development until just before the council approved the project, something the developer hotly denies.

In 2000, former Riverton state Sen. Mont Evans passed a law protecting Galena from development in perpetuity by placing a conservation easement on it. Six years later, Frankel’s wife, Wendy Fisher, who in 1990 set up nonprofit Utah Open Lands, was asked by the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to prepare the easement.

But the easement was never signed. Frankel blames then-House Speaker Greg Curtis for the delay.

JordanRiverSnowy.jpgAccording to Mike Styler, the DNR executive director, Curtis wanted to trade 10 acres of the state-owned Galena property for better road access for his real-estate client Woodside Homes. The private land he offered to trade also included a stretch of the Jordan River Parkway trail.

Styler was interested in the swap so he didn’t sign the easement. Curtis, however, then dropped out of sight. Styler later found out Curtis’ client was no longer interested in the deal. Curtis, who also happens to be subcontracted as a UTA lobbyist, did not respond to City Weekly regarding this story.

Curtis’ inadvertent hogtieing of the project gave the Legislature time to pass House Bill 179, which Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed into law in March of 2009. The bill allows the state to potentially swap Galena land with the Woodside Homes property.

This was welcome news for UTA which had been in talks with the Draper City Council since late summer 2008 about locating a FrontRunner stop on the Woodside Homes acreage at 12800 South, close to Interstate 15. Some neighbors, though, complained and wanted the transit stop moved further south to the state-owned DNR property of Galena, according to UTA attorney Bruce Jones.

As Draper City Council began wooing UTA in earnest, among those involved in discussions was Terry Diehl, a real-estate developer and CEO of Wasatch Pacific Inc. Diehl holds another key appointment: He’s a UTA board member and its planning committee chair.

Diehl has a financial stake in Whitewater VII, a developer with the contract to buy the 144-acre Woodside Homes property. But, according to several media accounts, whether Diehl was representing UTA or Whitewater VII during Draper City Council meetings remained a point of confusion for many, including Councilwoman Stephanie Davis. So much so, that during the Nov. 20, 2008, council meeting when the council voted to approve the Whitewater development, Davis asked Diehl to clarify who he was representing when he said “we.” To which he answered Whitewater.

All the same, the confusion surrounding Diehl’s involvement became fodder for several news stories that alleged Diehl, from the beginning, had failed to disclose his financial ties to Whitewater VII.

“That’s an absolute lie,” Diehl says. From Day 1, he says, he told Draper he represented Whitewater. “I never represented UTA in this.” Diehl went so far as to request a letter from Draper City confirming that he’d been an honest broker from the onset, a letter which was sent to the Senate by Mayor Darrell Smith just before a vote on HB 179—the bill that paved the way for the land swap.

But Diehl’s representation of Whitewater wasn’t all that troubled Davis. The city agreed Whitewater VII could have unlimited density and height for its development. Draper also agreed to pay millions of dollars for the land for the transit stop and related infrastructure. That left her, she says, “really uncomfortable,” so she voted not to approve the development on Nov. 20, 2008. Davis was the one holdout on the council.

The first DNR’s Styler knew of UTA being involved in the Galena development was reading a newspaper report that Draper had rezoned Galena for transit-orientated development. Styler says he’s never talked to the Woodside/Whitewater owners, which he describes as “unusual. We’d like to know who the property owners are.”

UTA board member Diehl was present at Styler’s first meeting with the transit authority. “I wasn’t sure if he was there as a developer or as a representative of the developer,” Styler recalls. When he found out later Diehl was on the UTA board, Styler was “somewhat surprised that a representative of the developer was also a board member.” Diehl says, “Maybe Mike Styler wasn’t aware, but he should have been. I’ve never been to any meeting [representing] UTA.”

If Styler was uncertain whom Diehl represented, he didn’t fare much better in his dealings with UTA over Galena. “It’s difficult to decide if you’re talking to the property owner, the developers or UTA,” he says. “I thought [UTA attorney Bruce Jones] was representing UTA, but I wondered if he was also representing the property owners.” Jones says all he represents is UTA.

When Frankel confronted UTA counsel Jones at the Legislature about Curtis’ alleged stalling of the easement signing, he says Jones threatened him. “He said I was heading into actionable territory; I could lose my house.” Jones says he made no such threats against Frankel, that rather the river activist promised blood in the streets.

According to Jones, the project is awaiting consensus among all the stakeholders. For now, it’s “up in the air.”

Frankel lambastes UTA for failing to “understand the public’s concern about ethics, corruption and conflicts of interest.” Giving up what he calls “the last jewel of the Jordan” to commercial development is obscene, he says. “If anything is protected around the Jordan, it should be here.”

Envision Utah, however, had little to say, he notes, about the Galena controversy. As soon as the Jordan Blueprint came out, the nonprofit moved onto other projects. “Where’s the advocacy?” Frankel asks. “They turned the other cheek.”

“We’re not an advocacy organization, that’s not our role,” Envision’s Matheson says. “We bring people together and facilitate public discussions.” Advocacy, he adds, would “compromise our mission.”

The Jordan’s salvation may lie with an implementation committee spun out of Blueprint Jordan and chaired by Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson. Wheeler is a committee member. He says the plan is to create a Jordan River Commission to levy property taxes to buy private land for preservation, a plan that nevertheless irks him. Why develop existing state land for projects like the motocross and proposed soccer complex, he asks, and then tax the public to buy more private land?

On the other side of the river from where UTA had hopes to erect its train stop and Whitewater VII reportedly proposes its mini-city, construction is already starting on another project: a sewage treatment plant. Jeff Salt knows the plant project well, having battled it through the courts and the press for four years. “Nobody advocates for the Jordan River,” he says.

Salt is a passionate advocate, something that makes him both an asset, and, given his aggressiveness, a liability for his colleagues in the Utah environmental movement who prefer the art of compromise over finger-wagging. One point he makes, though, that everyone agrees on is that, “You need to outline the needs of the river system first. If not, you’ll never get it right.”

Locating the new Jordan Basin water reclamation facility in Riverton, Salt says, “is redundant.” It will process sewage from Herriman and Daybreak, he claims, so logically, “it should be located there.” The plant’s facility manager, Garland Mayne, says it will treat 15 million gallons of sewage a day from the southern end of the valley. It was located by the Jordan River, Mayne says, because it’s a geographical low point in the valley, which aids sewage collection.

On one side of the Jordan, Salt says caustically, you’ll have “a huge industrial facility, on the other side, the city of Oz.”

One Wednesday afternoon in late May, Boogaard and half a dozen other kayaking enthusiasts meet at 12300 South by the Jordan for their weekly trip down the river. The setting sun streams down through the bullrushes. Canada geese take off in a V-formation against the evening sky. A muskrat pokes his head out of some reeds at the passing voices, the riverbanks cradling the kayakers as the swollen river takes them down to 9800 South. “The river is a place for peace,” Boogaard says. “It’s where I can be myself.”

PlankPathSK.jpgAbruptly, several brown, five-story office buildings rear up above the 6-foot tall rushes like futuristic monoliths. They tower over the river, harsh reminders of the concrete jungle that, for a few blocks, the boaters have escaped. This is Riverfront Parkway at 10600 South, built in the mid-90s—representing the future, Wheeler fears, for much of the undeveloped remnants of the Jordan.

The kayakers scramble up a muddy riverbank to get out. As several of the boaters struggle out onto the parkway with their boats, waiting patiently in adjacent bushes for the boaters to get out of the way are a family of ducks. Nature, it seems, knows its pecking order on the river.

Boogaard says his ultimate goal “is for the government to work at better management practices with filling in and building on the flood plains.” Water, he says, does what it wants to do. “We need to quit choking the river to death,” he says. “One day the river’s going to demand the space back and it won’t be there.”

Salt doesn’t share Boogaard’s cautious optimism that with residential development comes more homeowners invested in protecting the little wilderness that remains beyond their back yards. “We’re losing the river, just fighting for scraps,” he says. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

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Posted // June 12,2009 at 13:50

I, too, remember the Jordan River fuill of tires, car bodies and dead sheep floating by. Probably colored my feeling toward the river and Utah Lake negatively forever. On days when we can get away for lunch, a few of us from the office go for a walk along the new parkway and it's really fanstastic. The river just looks like the muddy Mississippi most of time rather than water that actaully might catch fire at any moment.

The only real question I have on this story subject is: WTF is a slash-and-burn developer like Terry Diehl doing on the board of UTA? What possible insights and productive input can the guy who wants to build "upscale" houses all over the mouth and hillsides of Big Cottonwood Canyon have? It's not like it's the Make-A-Wish board or Muscular Dystrophy Association.

The fact that there was confusion as to whether he was representing UTA or a development to Draper City proves there's no logical reason for him being on the board. It's a joke.

Some of us remember how he was involved in a successful family-owned business here in Salt Lake City years ago and how it was shut down quite suddenly. Something akin to Col. Sanders' nephew, the kid who swept up in the warehouse, selling the secret recipe for herbs and spices to Pollo Loco.

He belongs in a concrete compound segregated from decent people...what's that?...oh, right! He already lives in a concrete compound segregated from the rest of us. It's his house.


Posted // June 10,2009 at 16:37

Nice job, Stephen--especially the section explaining the controversy over the Galena property that UTA covets. Several media outlets have skipped through this tangled mess in the last few months, but no one has explained it as well as you have. That is probably because Curtis, Diehl and UTA have tried hard to keep it complex and confusing. The Jordan is one of the Wasatch Front's greatest assets. Now, if only we can keep ourselves from killing it.