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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
The Salt Lake Valley is pictured in the distance from atop Little Cottonwood Canyon in on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers on Thursday questioned a decision by the Quality Growth Commission to pass on more investigation of Salt Lake City's control of land outside its municipal boundaries, wondering why the governor-appointed board had backed off.

"This letter seems like kind of a punt," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, referencing a June letter by the commission's chairman concluding that extraterritorial jurisdiction, specifically as it deals with canyon development limits, would be better examined by a panel of experts appointed by the Legislature.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, wanted to know the intent behind the letter to the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands.

"Water is a complex issue. So one way of reading this letter is you're passing this very complex issue off, saying we don't have the resources or the bandwidth to really dive into the detail of how complex this is legally, statutorily or otherwise," Briscoe said.

At issue is Salt Lake City's control of water rights and denial of water to canyon property owners through a restrictive watershed ordinance adopted in 1991. The fight involves endless litigation, billions of dollars in legal costs and land acquisition, as well as political fights.

Vice Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said it went beyond the commission's expertise.

"This is such a dense and complicated subject. We didn't have the capacity as a commission to issue a substantial recommendation," Mendenall said.

But former Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County mayoral candidate Dave Robinson told the public lands commission the issue was batted to lawmakers as part of an ongoing effort by Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and others to "shut down" review of the municipal power.

"It should be a point of frustration," he said. "There has been tremendous effort by a number of elected officials and staff to shut this down. They did not want these issues addressed."

Robinson, who said he does not own property or water in the Wasatch canyons and is not a "speculator," rejected the assertion the Quality Growth Commission lacks the necessary expertise, pointing to members that include the state agency director over natural resources.

"They are the Quality Growth Commission, not the punting commission," he said.

Robinson also slammed the now defunct Mountain Accord, which sought a federal land designation "to provide water for massive development at the (ski) resorts to protect the watershed."

"However, right across the street is the Shrontz estate that has been tied up in litigation for many, many years, and it was fought and fought and fought that nine cabins in a vested subdivision with committed water from 1976 would destroy the watershed, but hundreds of units will protect the watershed," he said.

Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City's Division of Public Utilities, took exception to Robinson's accusation about "shutting down" efforts to talk about the issue. She said the city was a regular participant at the Quality Growth Commission discussions on issues related to the watershed.

"We're not opposed to having the conversation, but lately the conversation has been about us, not with us," Briefer said.

Paul Haik, a Minnesota attorney whose brother, Mark Haik, has been at the heart of multiple legal cases over water and canyon property, urged the commission to consider whether state law is being followed when it comes to appropriation of water and if Salt Lake City's action squares with requirements from the state engineer's office.

Pat Shea, an attorney representing Friends of Alta, said Haik mischaracterized the legal footing of the cases and the issue to the commission.

"You're being led down a path the judges have rejected consistently," Shea said.

But Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday said it might be time to take a look at extraterritorial jurisdiction.

"As a former county commissioner, I would not particularly welcome having a city telling us elected representatives of the unincorporated areas of the county what to do with our zoning," he said.

In March, Herbert expressed his frustration in the canyon's planning process in a letter to House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, after he signed HB293.

In his letter copied to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Herbert said the Mountainous Planning District was supposed to only exist for a year, but its life was being extended with the legislation.

The district was established to sift through and resolve the contentious canyon land use issues.

"This was supposed to be a one-year deal," the governor said in an interview. "Now it is going to be two years, and it ought not to be three years. It is not without controversy. There is a concern this can be overreach."

Herbert said he reluctantly agreed to give the district more time but warned, "Don't ask for a third (time)."

The governor said there should be common concerns to protect the watershed where the cities and county can come to an agreement, but there are "some games played by entities" that are not communicating.

If the canyon fights continue, it may merit action at a state level, Herbert said.

"There are probably very rare circumstances where I think some other city can compel another city (on) what to do or a city can compel a county," he said, "or a county can compel a city on what to do. If these issues continue to be a problem, perhaps we need some legislation to clarify."