When John Wayne "owned" a western town, it was always figurative. But in the case of Dutch John, you might just be able to own it literally.
If the price is right.The federal government is looking at proposals for turning the federally owned town into a private concern, meaning Pizza Hut and Burger King might not be too far behind.
Included in the deal are some 2,700 acres, about five dozen homes, office buildings and warehouses, and even an airport - a town by almost any definition.
"It's not really a town per se," said Jill Leonard, lands and mineral forester for the Ashley National Forest. "It's a government camp. It's really a private community because of restrictions as to who can live there."
Dutch John, located next to the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in northeastern Utah, was created in the 1950s to house construction workers and government bureaucrats during the construction of the dam.
Though a one-time boom town boasting a population of thousands, Dutch John is now a typical sleepy Utah community with a church, a school, a gas station and a small cafe serving some 45 families, most of them government workers.
The only difference between Dutch John and other rural communities is the federal government owns the land and all the buildings in the town.
"The BOR spends $1 million a year to maintain a town of 45 families," Leonard said. "They simply don't have it in their budget."
By considering a land exchange, the federal government could divest itself of the financial obligation and at the same time create a private sector that could provide services to the literally millions who visit the area every year.
"Visitation on the south end is just exploding," Leonard added. "And it seems they all demand more than what we've got there now." The nearest services are about an hour away.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation are in the midst of a two-year planning process to determine exactly what to do with the town of Dutch John. Most agree the natural thing is to sell off the property.
Four public hearings have already been held in compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act, and more hearings are likely in the future.
"Comments were mostly favorable," Leonard said. "People were mostly curious how it would all take place. But there was no real adamant opposition to the idea. In fact, they raised a lot of good questions we hadn't considered."
Such as: Would government employees be allowed to purchase the homes they are now provided by the federal government? Would a privatized Dutch John mean a booming year-round resort community where current residents could not afford to buy the homes or live there?
Government officials say they are still early in the planning process. It hasn't even been decided for sure if the federal government will sell the property or not. But already five entities have expressed interest in acquiring Dutch John, undoubtedly lured by the real estate potential of owning that much property adjacent to such a popular recreation destination.
Development alternatives are being analyzed and a new environmental document prepared, which must then be approved by the Forest Service, which must then include the land exchange option in its forest management plan.
"The gist of the second phase is to solicit land exchange proposals from the public," Leonard said. The state of Utah, which owns a block of land inside Dutch John, is among the interested suitors.
Another interested party is Daggett County, the least populated county and one of the poorest in the state. Dutch John is currently the largest community in the county, but because it is government-owned, the county cannot impose property taxes. "No question it would greatly increase their tax revenues (if an exchange were to take place)," Leonard said.
One requirement of any exchange partners would be to develop a master plan for planning and zoning, and Daggett County, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation have to all agree to the plan.
The exchange proposal would not initially include utilities, sewer or other town infrastructure. And transfer of title on the government housing would likely be delayed until the community reached a size to assume responsibility for maintaining its own infrastructure.
For example, the BOR spends about $1 million a year on Dutch John services. Yet the entire budget for Daggett County is in the range of $800,000 a year.
"At some point in the future, the BOR will transfer ownership of the infrastructure over to the county or to a private developer," Leonard said. "We don't want to leave the people living there high and dry and holding the bag for $1 million a year in maintenance costs. It potentially could become very expensive housing."
Once a trading partner is selected, the Forest Service would again go through the public hearing process, this time addressing specific land exchange proposals.