SALT LAKE CITY — Opposition is heating up to Snowbird ski resort's plan to put in a roller coaster in Little Cottonwood Canyon to lure summertime visitors.
A protest Monday in front of the Salt Lake County Government Center drew dozens of critics sporting signs and making pleas to stop the plan in its tracks because of fears it will despoil the canyon and harm the watershed.
"We live in Alta for different things," said Holly Hammer, 12, who was joined at the protest by classmate Georgina Chandler, 11.
The girls said the area is valued for its skiing, biking, hiking and natural beauty.
While both girls said they love roller coasters and frequently go to Lagoon, they do not feel the amusement ride would be appropriate in the canyon.
"We see Mount Superior from our classroom every day," Chandler said.
Organized by Save Our Canyons, the protest was in advance of a pair of appeals that will be heard on the issue by the Salt Lake County Board of Adjustment at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The adjustment board, made up of volunteers appointed by Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, can either vote to uphold a January decision by the Salt Lake County Planning Commission or overturn the granting of preliminary approval for a conditional-use permit.
Should the board not overturn the planning commission's decision, the issue can then be taken to 3rd District Court.
"I think it is time that we ask Snowbird to withdraw their proposal," said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons.
"There are a lot of people upset with this who are protective of our canyons."
Critics contend county planning commission members rushed through the process during the busy Christmas season last year to reduce opposition by people who use the canyons. A request for a continuance by Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities was denied at the commission's Jan. 12 meeting in which the decision to grant preliminary approval was rendered.
The lack of what he says was adequate technical analysis led Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker to issue a sternly worded letter to Corroon and the county's planning and development director, Ron Yoshinaga, earlier this month.
"A continuance would have given Snowbird, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County an opportunity to conduct the necessary and appropriate due diligence to ensure watershed protection," the letter reads.
"I do not object to reasonable development in our ski resorts," Becker's letter says. "However, given the high visibility and nature of amusement park-style development at the base of Mt. Superior, one of the most iconic mountains in the Wasatch, I do feel this proposal poses a significant impact to the natural character of Little Cottonwood Canyon and the Wasatch mountains."
Canyon resident Katherine Ferguson said to have such an attraction with "people screaming their heads off" is unthinkable for an area treasured for its pristine wilderness qualities and quiet respite from the city.
Sarah Bennett, another canyon resident, is among those who also question the process and notifications that were or were not made.
"I think if Snowbird had a plan with any integrity, they would have come to us," Bennett said. "This took all of us by surprise. I believe it was very carefully engineered to evade public perception and limit public comment."
Yoshinaga disputes that and says all proper steps were taken to ensure the planning commission's meeting was properly noticed.
The county in the last year has changed how it grants conditional-use permits by first giving preliminary approval and then requiring a technical analysis for a project to determine if any attendant issues can be resolved.
"I think there is a misunderstanding of what that preliminary approval gives Snowbird," Yoshinaga said, adding that state law is "pretty specific" about what latitude planning commissions have when it comes to holding up a land-use request.
Utah favors protection of private property rights, he added, pointing out that there are a variety of requirements that will have to be satisfied regarding the proposal as it relates to watershed and the Utah Department of Transportation.
John Guldner, Alta's town administrator, said when it comes to land use, "it does not come into play whether you like something or hate it. If you can follow the rules correctly, you can have that land use. ... Personal preference and personal feelings don't come into play."
The roller coaster would require either the installation of a bridge over state Route 210, which is a state scenic byway, or a tunnel, requiring the involvement of state transportation officials.
Salt Lake City officials, too, have concerns that any soil disruption caused by the coaster's installation would disturb mine tailings and contribute to water-quality concerns at Little Cottonwood Creek, which is already designated as "impaired" because of high zinc concentrations.
Planning documents filed by Snowbird with the county indicate the raised track would rest on a trestle, varying from 2 to 13 feet high. A curving, 3,300-feet-long track would drop nearly 400 feet in elevation.
Snowbird's Jared Ishkanian said the ski resort — like many around the country — struggles to be economically viable during the summer.
A zip line and other family-friendly attractions at the resort have proven to be extremely popular with summertime guests, he added, and resort officials believe the coaster could add more opportunities for visitors.
The resort, he pointed out, has undertaken a lot of steps to minimize visual impacts where possible and an old mining road would provide construction access.
Despite the misconception that the coaster will go the top of the mountain, he said it would actually be located more than 2,600 feet below the top of Mount Superior.
Obtaining preliminary approval does not assure construction of the coaster, but is simply one step in the process, he added.
"Preliminary approval does not greenlight a project."