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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Large chunks of rock lie on the ground in Rock Canyon. A conservation easement may save the rock face.

PROVO — John Valentine was furious when he learned of excavation of one of the popular rock climbing routes on the Red Slab face of Provo's Rock Canyon.

Valentine is an attorney who doubles as majority whip of the Utah Senate, but in his spare time he also climbs and even designed some of the routes on Red Slab.

Provo Mayor Lewis Billings momentarily became the target of Valentine's frustration, but Billings won a friend and major ally when he explained the city opposed the excavations, conducted by Michael J. McPhilomy and his son on behalf of Richard Davis, who owned the land and believed he had unrestricted mining rights to remove the rock.

After months of backroom dealing, Billings and Valentine engineered a three-way deal, given the City Council's blessing Tuesday night, which could lead to the end of a messy standoff between Davis and the city.

The council voted 6-0 to spend $200,000 to buy half of the property from Davis' two partners and trade it to a company created by Valentine for a permanent conservation easement that will preserve Rock Canyon for the foreseeable future.

"This canyon is of great importance to this city," Valentine said. "It provides the vistas, it provides the views. Provo would not be the same without the mountains to the east. If those mountains become rock quarries, we would rue the day we didn't stop it."

Davis still owns a 50 percent interest in the land, but Billings and Valentine hope they can negotiate a similar agreement with Davis for about the same amount.

Valentine characterized Davis as "a very astute businessman," but it is unclear how Davis, who could not be reached Tuesday night, will react to his new partners or to a $200,000 offer for his interest in the 84-acre swatch of rock when he has publicly valued the land at more than $1 million.

A legal battle could ensue, and Valentine and the new company will be on the hook for any lawsuits, not the city.

"There is the real potential for some significant litigation," Billings said. "That litigation will not be funded by the city under this proposal."

Although Davis did not respond to calls Tuesday night, Billings pointed to a prior statement by Davis that he would be willing to sell based on a reasonable appraisal.

The McPhilomys set off a storm of protests from climbers, conservationists and ultimately the courts when they began in October to tear rock from Red Slab for use in yard displays. Both men were cited by Provo city and finally forbidden from further excavation by a 4th District Court judge.

That left Davis and the city at odds. Billings said legal sleuthing uncovered Davis' partners, the Sperry and Cappolo families. The families agreed to sell to the city a $10,000 option to purchase their 50 percent stake in the land.

Billings said city officials had to be creative to find the money for the option and the additional $190,000 to buy the land — it comes from the debt-service fund — but they had one other problem: The city couldn't both own the land and maintain its full enforcement rights as a regulatory body.

That's where Valentine entered the fray.

The city will give the option and the $190,000 today to a new company formed by Valentine, a company he named Red Slab after the now-damaged rock formation. In exchange, Red Slab will give Provo a conservation easement. Red Slab will exercise the option and buy out the Sperrys and Cappolos.

Valentine, who is joined by two partners in Red Slab, said the deal is reminiscent of a major three-team trade in professional sports. Billings said Valentine, in his original call to the mayor, referred to the site as "my mountain." Now he's halfway to making a throwaway figurative statement a reality.

"The end result is what is important," Valentine said. "The canyon will start to be protected, Provo has enforcement rights and we can begin to negotiate with the 50 percent owner."

Billings said he won't ask the council for more money. City officials already have applied for a $200,000 grant from a state fund that they hope to pay Davis for his interest in the land.

The council hoped the solution would end the controversy, one they once worried was headed toward confrontations at the excavation site.

"People could have chained themselves to the rocks and they could have thrown rocks, but this is a very deliberate solution," Councilman Steve Turley said.

Provo's part of the deal is complete, and for $200,000 the mayor and council believe they have preserved one of Provo's gateways to the Wasatch Mountains at a cost of about 90 cents per taxpayer.

"This is a legacy investment," Billings said. "This is an investment in the future."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com