Gary and Helen Lund built their cabin in Albion Basin in 1972. Ever since, they've been renting it several weeks each winter to out-of-town skiers.
Many of their neighbors do the same. Many, like the Lunds, say that's the only way they can afford to keep their cabins and pay utility costs and high property taxes.It came as a shock this fall when Alta town officials informed them that renting their cabins has been illegal all along.
A group of angry cabin owners threatened to disconnect, or de-annex, from the town. The Lunds after the town's board of adjustment this month unanimously denied them a non-conforming use or a variance say they plan to pursue the matter in court.
"We're not trying to be mean, we're trying to protect the damn watershed," said Mayor William H. Levitt in explaining why the town has taken a hard line despite pleas of the cabin owners.
"The key issue as far as the town is concerned is the preservation of Albion Basin and the guardianship of the watershed so it doesn't get demeaned, polluted, ravaged in any way. That's our obligation, and we've always tried to maintain that."
Cabin owners don't see it that way. They ask why a practice that hasn't caused problems should suddenly be forbidden.
"The fact of the matter is, probably the majority of the people rarely if ever rent, and those who do rent won't rent very much," said Chuck Miles, president of the Albion Basin Cabin Owners Association. "We think the town is exaggerating the problem."
The Lunds believe town officials knew for a long time that they were renting, said Denis Morrill, attorney for the Lunds, during a board of adjustment hearing. The Lunds were not at the hearing and declined to be interviewed.
"When they built that home they were relying on their ability to rent it to afford it," Morrill said. "If they can't rent it they can't afford it. There is a `for sale' sign on the home."
He said the Lunds love Alta and have invested much of their lives, and their assets, in the cabin. "This is a very emotional
issue for them."
Miles said he has also rented his cabin occasionally. "I'm retired, and it enables me to own it, as it were. He said cabin owners thought they were free to rent and agreed to become a part of the town under the zoning they thought they had under the county.
Alta annexed the Albion Basin in 1980. Town officials say rentals were also forbidden under the former county zoning, but cabin owners disagree.
Miles said cabin owners have not pursued de-annexation for the time being. Instead, they want to first try to persuade the town to rezone the area. The group represents 22 cabin owners, all but about three in the basin.
Levitt said that from the town's viewpoint, commercial use is "a thing that since the very earliest days in Alta everyone agreed we didn't want in Albion Basin.
"It's a key area for the watershed. We've had that thrust upon us, and we've accepted it since the town began." Water rights in the basin are held not by the town, but by Salt Lake City and Little Cottonwood Water Co.
Other concerns cited by Levitt are limited water supplies to the cabins and liability problems for the town.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the town says it's OK for owners to rent their cabins for longer than 30 days. That's not considered a commercial rental. Cabin owners argue that renting for a whole season would result in more use, and more damage to the watershed.
While cabin owners claim the town must have known they were renting, Levitt said, "We've always said it was illegal. The people up there were not renting, if they were, that much, and it's very hard to prove. Mostly we assumed it was friends, family, relatives visiting them for short periods. One outfit started advertising to rent, and we immediately told them to stop.
"Most of these people have places in the city, and they couldn't do in the city what they want to do in Albion Basin. And it's a lot more in need of protection than anyplace in the city."