MOAB, Utah - Ten years ago, Karen Nelson arrived in southern Utah, drawn by redrock canyons, whitewater and a simpler way of life. A native of California, she moved to Castle Valley, a community of 50 homes nestled above the Colorado River; there, she made a living handcrafting furniture.
of Route 128, called the "River Corridor," separates Nelson's home
in Castle Valley from Moab, the former mining town turned
mountain-biking mecca. The 20-mile drive snakes somewhat
dangerously alongside the Colorado, as redrock canyons rise to
ragged plateaus hundreds of feet above. Nelson sees this canyon as
her "sanity playground' - a haven from the motel and fast food
signs that battle for attention in Moab.
years later, another Californian made his way to Utah, hoping to
start a new life. Robbie Levin had been the bass guitarist for rock
musician Rick Springfield in the mid-'70s, and a highly successful
women's clothing entrepreneur. He bought a dilapidated 160-acre
ranch straddling Route 128 in the heart of the River Corridor.
Within a few years he had renamed the property Sorrel River Ranch
and started planning a high-end destination
Now, Levin's neighbor, Karen Nelson, and
her group, Friends of the Colorado River Corridor, are furious.
He's "selling out all his neighbors for the biggest profit," she
When the uranium boom ended in the "80s,
Moab became a model for the New West, with tourists replacing
miners. Critics such as Nelson say the new economy threatens the
open space and simple living that drew people here in the first
A blank check for
Although current zoning won't permit
his proposed 76-room destination resort, Levin, who also sits on
the Grand County Planning and Zoning Commission, has applied for a
Planned Unit Development. Referred to as a "PUD" in land-use
jargon, this tool - available in virtually every Western county -
allows developers to escape restrictive zoning by offering benefits
to the community such as open space or land for
Levin has offered to cluster his
development by the riverside, keeping 60 percent of his land in
alfalfa fields. He's also agreed to keep rooflines under 18 feet
and to maintain a "ranchy feel" about the place. Already, broken
wagon wheels and obsolete farming equipment dot his property, and
future buildings, he says, will sport "factory-rusted tin roofs."
In exchange, the county says it will allow him higher densities and
commercial uses, including the hotel rooms and a
Levin points out that under existing
zoning he could subdivide his property into 32 single-family lots.
"My proposal will have less visual impact, (and) less strain on
infrastructure than splitting the ranch into 5-acre parcels," he
Most planners agree that PUDs offer
flexibility to encourage development better suited for a community.
But Stanford University lecturer Skid Hall, an expert on land use,
says the tool can become "a blank check for developers."
Although PUDs have been around since the "60s,
they reached their heyday during the mid-'80s. At the time, few
counties tightly controlled PUDs, giving local officials a large
amount of discretion. One result: tightly packed condominium and
cookie-cutter tract home developments were regularly exchanged for
amenities like open space.
regulations, Grand County planning consultant Richard Grice says,
"opened the door to abuses ... like special treatment for certain
developers and adjacent property owners being ignored." But, he
notes, the days of freewheeling PUDs are numbered. Grice says many
counties are updating their general plans to put more specific
controls on what scale and type of development can be approved
under a PUD. Some counties, however, including Grand County, still
operate under older land-use codes that permit old-school PUDs -
allowing county authorities to throw aside existing zoning and the
concerns of neighbors.
star-turned-developer pushes on
A revision of
Grand County's general plan tightening PUD regulations is currently
under way. But the Sorrel River Ranch, proposed before the revision
process was started, remains under the more lenient
Even with the stricter rules, Grice
thinks Levin's resort and a similar development slightly downriver
from home-electronics magnate Colin Fryer could be
Levin's PUD will go before Grand County
Council for its final major hurdle Dec. 7. Al McCloud, a council
member who was unsuccessful in seeking a moratorium on development
in the River Corridor, predicts the vote will be 6-1 to go ahead.
McCloud believes only he will oppose the
Despite being characterized as a
destroyer of the River Corridor's character and a "rich weasel" by
his critics, Levin remains unfazed. "I know I'm trying to do
something good for the community. No matter what people say, I
sleep well at night, and that's all that matters."
* Stanley Yung, HCN
* contact Mary Hoffhine,
Grand County Subdivision Coordinator,
* mail comments to Grand County
Council, 125 E. Center, Moab, UT 84532.