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Park City seeks BLM land

But critics say $1.16 million offer too little for prime acreage

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Park City Mayor Dana Williams, left, and city manager Tom Bakaly look over BLM-owned land within the city.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

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PARK CITY — To city fathers, the few remaining slivers of undeveloped land left in Park City are priceless as open space.

Actually, the price they would like to pay for some open space is about $10,000 an acre. That's the amount the city is offering the Bureau of Land Management for roughly 116 acres of prime, undeveloped property the federal agency owns within the city limits. The total amount the city wants to pay would be about $1.16 million.

And Park City wants to keep its offer intact, although some others are saying the land is worth many times that amount and that the city's proposed deal would be a colossal rip-off of U.S. taxpayers.

A plan to preserve open space — a plan being pushed by city officials and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, along with support from the Sierra Club — is causing a lot of heartburn in the U.S. Department of Interior, BLM's parent agency. Some argue that at the city's proposed price, the deal could be a $100 million loss to taxpayers.

"While we have not undertaken an appraisal of these lands, comparables in the immediate area suggest a valuation of at least $1 million an acre is not unreasonable, meaning the total fair market value of the land being transferred could well exceed $100 million," said Chad Calvert, a deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Interior, during congressional testimony earlier this year.

Beyond the disparity in perceived values, the proposed transaction gets even more complicated and convoluted. And some believe it could run afoul of current federal law.

Open space valued

Park City has long valued its open space. According to Mayor Dana Williams' testimony before a congressional committee earlier this year, the city has permanently protected 4,000 acres of open space, spending more than $35 million since 1990 to acquire those lands.

"In 1998 and again in 2002, by a margin of 75 percent and 80 percent respectively, voters approved raising their taxes to fund a total of $20 million in bonds for the acquisition and preservation of recreational open space," Williams said.

And now the city has its eyes on the 116 acres under BLM management. The city has leased the land from the BLM since 1985 as recreational property under provisions of the Recreation and Public Purposes Act. That lease expires in five years.

The lease, Calvert said, is a source of contention between the BLM and Park City because the city never completed its development plan for the property "and there is no legal public access to the parcel."

Now the city wants to maintain the property as open space instead of recreation. "Open space that does not provide any additional public value, such as recreational facilities, is not an allowed use under the R&PP Act," Calvert testified.

Perceived intransigence by the BLM's parent agency, the Department of Interior, over protocol and procedures prompted city fathers to approach Bishop about sponsoring legislation to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles. And they found a sympathetic ear.

"Congressman Bishop has a real problem with the BLM owning land in city limits, like Park City," said Justin Harding, legislative director for Bishop's office, who added that Bishop has a "great relationship" with the BLM in Utah and nationally, and that there are "no negative feelings between our office and BLM on this matter."

The result is HR3462, which directs the Department of Interior to convey to Park City title to the 116 acres in four separate BLM-owned parcels near Deer Valley. It also mandates that the city pay fair market value "based on the continued and primary use of the property as open space." Bishop sees the legislation as a way to get the BLM out of the business of managing land in Park City, Harding said.

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