By all appearances Springdale is a paradise: lush green pastures contrasting sharply with sheer sandstone cliffs, all crowned by the sun-reflected waters of the Virgin River and the satiny blossoms of fruit trees.
But under that beautiful exterior is a community torn apart by internal controversy that has continued unabated for years. It reached a fury about two years ago during a fight over whether to condemn private property to build a golf course.Since then, it has involved everything from desert tortoises to fire hydrants to outdoor theaters.
And it's getting worse. "Every issue in that town provokes controversy," said David Nuffer, the former Springdale city attorney. "It doesn't matter what the issue is, it will find some way of dividing the town."
"It's the only town I know of where the sheriff comes to the City Council meetings just to keep the peace," added the owner of one service station. Another store owner likened it to "a soap opera come to life in a small town."It's a town where the mayor and members of the City Council and Planning Commission are under investigation by the Washington County attorney for possible wrongdoing. It's a town that fired Nuffer because, Nuffer says, he pursued criminal charges against a friend of the mayor.
It's a town where the mayor may yet face federal charges for willfully destroying desert tortoise (an endangered species) habitat and telling federal investigators "I don't give a damn about turtles."
It's a town where some people are charged significantly more for building permits than others who may have longstanding ties to the ruling town fathers. And when one builder questioned the practice, his nose was broken.
It's a town where the City Council once sued the mayor. It's a town where two members of the City Council resigned in frustration over the mayor's political direction, only to be replaced by supporters of the mayor and eliminating the only effective opposition to the mayor.
The list goes on. And the result is dozens of letters to Washington County Attorney Paul Graf and Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam requesting an investigation into various charges of wrongdoing.
Before he was fired, Nuffer, a prominent Washington County attorney, requested that the Utah Attorney General's Office investigate the allegations. He wrote, "There have been numerous allegations of law violations by town officials and prominent citizens. These problems are too burdensome for a town this size and need prompt attention. Until the air is clear, town government is essentially at a standstill, frozen by allegations and counter-accusations."
Van Dam refused to become involved in the investigation, but Washington County Attorney Paul Graf is investigating, though he refused to comment on the status of the investigation.
But Springdale residents say Graf is not investigating. Graf said a year ago he was investigating allegations of wrongdoing, but no one in Springdale has been contacted by Graf or any representative of his office. One resident says Graf admitted he has not even read the letters of complaints from Springdale residents.
"He says he is investigating, but he hasn't done a thing in a whole year's time," said Mark Austin, president of the citizen's group Zion Canyon Alliance.
Much of the controversy is a matter of demographics. Springdale is a mixed bag: About 40 percent of the community is retirees, about 50 percent would be considered longtime residents. The remaining 10 percent are newcomers, most of them with new ideas not always compatible with traditional southern Utah conservatism.
"You've got old-timers with provincial attitudes," Austin said, "that do not reflect what's going on in the rest of the world. They are looking in a mirror to see what's going on in the rest of the world."
But longtime residents disagree. They see the economic potential of the 2.34 million visitors to Zion National Park, and they see newcomers as impediments to economic growth. "It doesn't go over too well here when someone moves to town and immediately starts telling everyone how things should be run," said City Councilman Bert Chamberlain.
For the most part, Springdale traditionalists have not accepted the newcomers' suggestions or ideas with open arms. "The suitability of projects is not judged by their merits but by who is proposing them," Austin said.
Despite the controversy, Springdale is exhibiting all the signs of economic prosperity. Almost all major motels in town have expanded in recent years, and several new restaurants and gift shops have opened.
"I used to be the only business in town that stayed open all winter," said Chamberlain, a rock shop owner. "Now just about everybody stays open."
Springdale officials are talking about a master plan that would direct the growth in specific directions. But there is pessimism that a master plan would work, given the limited amount of private ground within the city limits.
"Plans are good, but they don't mean much when a guy comes along with money to change the plan," Chamberlain said.
What most city fathers agree is that property along the main highway will be zoned commercial, if it already hasn't been. Property off the main drag will likely remain residential.
Most attention now is focused on whether or not a large outdoor theater should be built next to the park. The National Park Service opposes the theater at the proposed location.
But the theater is not really an issue, Chamberlain said. The property was long ago zoned for commercial purposes, "and we have no say except to approve the designs. They could build a 300-unit motel there with flashing lights and we wouldn't have any say about it," he said.
There is no city ordinance specifically addressing outdoor theaters.
"I personally like the location they have chosen," Chamberlain adds. "You can't destroy the wilderness experience in that (Park Service) campground because there isn't one to begin with. The theater would offer the folks in the campground an opportunity to do something in the evening. They want something to do at night."
Austin and others say they are not fighting the theater but the location of the theater. "We feel that we as a community have a responsibility to be compatible with the park experience. The rest of the nation is looking on us hoping we will take that responsibility."
Rep. Wayne Owens and other U.S. congressmen have petitioned the city to re-evaluate the propriety of an outdoor theater. But quite frankly, city fathers don't really care what Owens or the rest of the world has to say on the matter.
"He's never been down here to look at the project," Chamberlain said. "I can't see what the fuss is; there's already buildings on the property. They are just playing politics, and that doesn't go over well down here."
Chamberlain puts the local support of the project at about 75 percent. Austin puts support at less than 50 percent.
The only thing certain is that Springdale remains divided.