SALT LAKE CITY — After hearing from a dozen supporters and protesters Tuesday, the Salt Lake County Council decided to wait another 30 days before considering whether to approve Mountain Accord's transformation into an official government entity.
The council voted for the delay to take more time to review the agreement between the county, Salt Lake City, Cottonwood Heights and Sandy before considering whether the Central Wasatch Commission should become the formal body to plan and preserve the future of Utah's Wasatch recreation areas.
While representatives from environmental groups, ski resorts and other Mountain Accord stakeholders unanimously urged the council to support the creation of the commission, a handful of property owners in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons decried the proposal, worrying that it would give more power to an entity they say has been lacking transparency and ignoring landowners' voices.
"A rotten tree produces rotten fruit," said Evan Johnson, a Big and Little Cottonwood canyons landowner, accusing Mountain Accord's chairman, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, of "demonizing" landowners and "kicking" them out of accord dealings.
After several other canyon landowners shared similar complaints — accusations GOP Salt Lake County mayoral candidate Dave Robinson echoed last week — McAdams and Laynee Jones, Mountain Accord program manager, reiterated again Tuesday that no meetings have ever been closed to the public, and the whole aim of the accord is to create consensus solutions.
"Certainly, in something as big as our canyons — with public engagement as broad as it's been — you're not going to have unanimous consent," McAdams said. "But I think we need to recognize that not getting your way doesn't mean the process wasn't fair or transparent."
Mountain Accord, a coalition of more than 20 private and public entities, has been working since 2013 to collaborate on transit and recreational solutions to keep Utah's most popular recreational areas accessible yet protected.
"This is easily the most expansive public process I've ever been through," said Park City Councilman Andy Beerman, adding that he's been part of Mountain Accord since it's inception. "We've had over 200 stakeholders participate regularly in meetings. There has been amble opportunity for public input."
So far, Mountain Accord has spent $7.5 million in efforts to plan for future growth and preservation of the Wasatch.
A transportation study in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons is underway. In the meantime, Mountain Accord has collaborated with the Utah Transit Authority to increase bus service through the ski season, while also aiding Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in efforts to get federal approval to designate about 8,000 acres as conservation and recreational areas.
Landowners such as Suzie Albertson, who's lived in Little Cottonwood Canyon for 16 years, worry Mountain Accord's preservation efforts will restrict the rights of property owners and that formalizing the group into the Central Wasatch Commission will only give stakeholders more authority.
"This is a power grab to take prime land from the people and profit off of it to enrich other people," Albertson said. "To streamline it will only streamline it for corruption in the future."
But Jones said the commission will only "formalize" the group to propose recommendations to authoritative municipalities while not superseding authorities of any local jurisdictions.
Carl Fisher, Save Our Canyons executive director, said the Central Wasatch Commission is needed to carry out the accord's goals in the coming years.
"We fear that failure to establish a coordinated entity will result in lack of intergovernmental cooperation," Fisher said.
Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she's received many emails expressing worries that the commission would be given too many powers, particularly with the ability to bond or levy fees, so she proposed changing the agreement to specify the commission will first need approval from the relevant governing body.
Councilman Richard Snelgrove proposed the council take time to look over the changes, while also considering holding a town hall meeting to gather public input and educate concerned residents about the proposed commission.
"We only have one swing at the ball, so we need to make sure we get it right," Snelgrove said.