Robert Gehrke: Why a massive new Wasatch County ski resort may not be a good deal for taxpayers

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It started humbly enough about 25 years ago, championed by then U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen.

The Air Force was losing a ski lodge it owned as part of the Snowbasin expansion tied to the 2002 Olympics and they were looking for a replacement somewhere near Park City where officers could stay at a reduced cost.

The plan developed into the military having access to one floor at a proposed new resort in Wasatch County not far from the Jordanelle Reservoir.

From there, it has snowballed into something massive — a billion-dollar ski resort development that may well be the largest in the history of Wasatch County. While it has been in the works for years, the developer, Extell Development, best known for its massive New York City real estate projects, chose this week to publicly announce its plans.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

And as they used to say on late-night infomercials: But wait, there’s more!

The initial 40-acre footprint for the resort has exploded into roughly 5,600 acres, swooping around one side of the Jordanelle Reservoir. It now includes the Skyridge housing development, consisting of 485 projects along the east side of the reservoir and a golf academy.

The Extell announcement Monday was glowingly covered by some local media and hailed as a win-win for the military and for Wasatch County residents.

But is it really?

The entire project, now spanning nearly 8 1/2 square miles, is being entirely overseen by the state’s Military Installation Development Authority (MIDA), initially created to spur commercial development near Hill Air Force Base, but expanded to include the Wasatch County project.

MIDA will keep 75 percent of the tax revenues from the resort for the next 25 years and, under state legislation passed last session, as many as 40 years in order to finance the project.

If residents want to object, they have to drive an hour north to Kaysville, where the MIDA board meets. The board consists entirely of appointed members and is chaired by Senate President Stuart Adams. Until a few months ago, when Wasatch County Councilman Danny Goode attended his first meeting, the county had no representation on the board.

This is an artist rendering of the planned Mayflower ski resort development near the Jordanelle Reservoir. The resort, being developed by Extell Development, is being overseen by the Military Installation Development Authority. The development will have 388 units, 55 condominiums and span more than 600,000 square feet.

What that means, is the board is almost entirely unaccountable. If residents of Wasatch County don’t like MIDA’s decisions, they can’t vote them out.

Adams notes that the elected county officials willingly signed agreements to participate in the project — and that is absolutely true — and believes it will be a win.

“It’ll be a great thing for the state and the county and eventually the citizens of the county as it goes forward,” he said.

The county had hoped to retain control over land-use decisions, but that didn’t happen.

MIDA is still supposed to comply with county’s rules and Wasatch County will be in charge of permitting. If county leaders disagree with a proposed development, they can object but the MIDA board will have the final say.

The county’s participation in the project — approval of density and development rights and so forth — hinged on Deer Valley’s owner, Alterra Mountain Company, being a partner in the project, potentially connecting the two resorts. At a County Council meeting last month, council members expressed “grave concern” that Deer Valley was perhaps no longer part of it.

“Basically we’re screwed again — maybe,” Davis told the council. “It was all integral to the whole thing.”

Extell’s senior vice president of development, Kurt Krieg, said that “there is an ongoing dialogue” with Alterra. “There’s a lot that remains to be done and we’re moving forward.”

Wasatch County Councilman Steve Farrell, is looking on the bright side. He said he doubts the project would be much different if it was being run by the county, instead of MIDA, and it should ultimately be good for the county.

“We look at it as a kick-start,” he told me Tuesday. “We’re not really happy about the tax credit, but it helps us get the economy moving [in the area].”

As council member Goode described it, MIDA is a unique creation. It’s like a city, it’s like a special service district, but very different.

“What I’ve learned about the MIDA process is nothing seems to work the way it does with everything else,” he said.

But here’s what it all means: Wasatch County taxpayers may give a fat subsidy to an extraordinarily wealthy New York real estate company for up to 40 years and the only real oversight of the expansive project would come from a board with no real accountability to the county residents.

This is by no means MIDA’s first or last big project. Other companies are lining up for a similar deal because the process is supposedly easier and faster to go through MIDA than local governments.

And if those of you following the inland port project in Salt Lake City see a pattern developing: It is. If you think it’s a cause for concern: It’s that, too.

Entities that collect and spend taxpayer money need to be accountable to the taxpayers. Remember that whole “No taxation without representation” notion you learned while studying the Revolutionary War back in school? It’s a fundamental principle of our democracy and something the “local-control” Utah Legislature espouses — until it is inconvenient.

I get it. Big developers and big money are sexy. But the Legislature needs to get back to those core values and start respecting the autonomy of local governments and the citizens they represent.

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