Gov. Gary Herbert signed a conservation easement with an environmental group Tuesday evening to protect ecologically and archaeologically significant land in Draper near 13500 South and the Jordan River in perpetuity.
That means a proposed FrontRunner south commuter-rail station will not be built on the 252 aces on which there are artifacts from a 3,000-year-old Native American village and a nesting place for migratory birds around the Great Salt Lake.
The easement was signed following afternoon meetings of the governor and 2 dozen others from Native American and conservation communities, the Utah Transit Authority and other government agencies.
"We are forever stewards of this land in terms of promoting its conservation value," said Wendy Fisher, executive director of Utah Open Lands, which is the official steward.
Legislation was passed in 2000 to protect the land, but signing the easement was delayed after legislator-turned-lobbyist Greg Curtis approached the state, according to government records, on behalf of a client who wanted to swap land in the area.
The 150-acre piece of property, owned by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, is near another 70 acres that are also protected, owned by the Utah Reclamation Mitigation Commission, meaning a small part of the Jordan River corridor is now forever preserved.
However, that doesn't save other parts of the corridor from development.
"That means (the station) shifts now to the northern property," Herbert said, referring to 150 acres just north of the 13500 South site at roughly 12800 North.
Developer Jeff Vitek, who developed Jordan Landing, is in the process of purchasing the land from a homebuilder. Vitek, who was not present at the Tuesday afternoon meetings, will build a so-called "transit-oriented development" of housing, retail and office space, said UTA attorney Bruce Jones. Vitek also has made a verbal commitment with UTA to donate 10 acres of that property for the rail station, Jones said.
Previously, on the 13500 South property, a development group called Whitewater VII was going to build the transit-oriented development. Whitewater VII, which includes UTA trustee Terry Diehl, is not totally out of the picture, however, because Vitek will have to purchase or get under contract approvals that Draper gave to Whitewater for planning and zoning. Diehl has those, Jones said.
In addition to potential environmental effects of moving the proposed station to the north, the northern station is closer to housing. Neighbors have said in the past they do not want the traffic and noise of a commuter-rail station so close to their homes. They were not invited to the meetings Tuesday and they did not return calls from the Deseret News seeking comment.
"They'll be disappointed," Draper Mayor Darrell Smith said of the neighbors when they get the news.
However, Smith and City Councilman Jeff Stenquist said they needed to resolve the problem of the 13500 South land. They believe a transit-oriented development will benefit Draper residents.
"We're going to move forward to work with UTA to move the station to the private property," Stenquist said.
But does the northern land have Native American artifacts?
"As far as I know, no," said Kevin Jones, state archaeologist.
"There may be some (archives), but that will be a separate issue," said Rupert Steele, chairman of the Utah Tribal Leaders and chairman of the Confederated Tribes.
It is unclear whether the developer will have to conduct an environmental impact study on the northern land, as federal guidelines require, since it is private land and a private developer. An EIS could show that the land has too much cultural importance to be developed.
Ted Wilson, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said he isn't necessarily opposed to development on the 12800 South property. But he wants to see the plans before he decides whether to support or fight it. Wilson said he hopes the development will be sensitive to the environment.
"Nobody's put a plan on the table," he said. "And nobody's said, 'Here's what we're going to do out there.' "
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