'Greens' bulldoze a conservation effort

  • Karla Player calls builders "greedy developers"

    Photo courtesy Karla Player
  • Milo McCowan says conservation effort failed for lack of money and time

    McCowan
  • The Rockville Bench on border of Zion Nat'l Park

    HCN file photo
 

Karla Player has seen a lot of changes in the eight years she's lived in Springdale, Utah. Each summer, more than 2 million people pass through this dusty gateway town of 300 on their way to Zion National Park. Most visitors spend just a few hours here, though lately, people are coming to stay.

"You used to go to the post office and see all your friends and catch up," says Player, who owns a bed and breakfast and handmade jewelry shop in town. "Now you go to the post office and you don't even recognize anyone."

Player says she's watched family businesses go under and long-time residents move away as the frenzied development of nearby St. George has spread to Springdale. Still, she was not prepared in July when bulldozers broke ground on a high-end development on the Rockville Bench, a mesa backed against Zion National Park between Springdale and the neighboring town of Rockville.

"I don't think any of us saw it coming," she says. "(The bench) was one of the few places locals could go and walk your dog. It was a real pristine, beautiful area."

The Rockville Bench has been zoned for houses for years, and the development has been in the works since 1994. So why are Player and her fellow residents shocked?

Because town officials had worked for three years to buy the Rockville Bench, to protect it as open space and secure the area for its watershed values. What's more, three men behind the development, all of whom describe themselves as environmentalists, at first seemed responsive to a conservation approach.

But when the building permits came through ahead of the conservation money, the deal was off and bulldozers rolled to the bench.

In 1994, Milo McCowan, who says he is an "environmental developer," applied for permits to build on 276 acres of the Rockville Bench, which are owned by Salt Lake City real estate speculator Richard Jensen.

That sent Rockville town planner Coby Jordan in search of alternatives. Over nearly three years, he pieced together a plan to preserve the bench that won the support of local residents, county commissioners, Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, the Utah state legislature, the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Jordan's plan depended on the Conservation Fund, which offered McCowan $1.75 million for the property. If the deal went through, the land would be traded to the BLM and protected as open space.

"It was a real opportunity for these (developers) to do something higher than what they're doing," says Jordan.

But the offer was "two years late and a million and a half short," says McCowan. The $1.75 million amounted to 15 percent of the land's developed value, he says, and Jensen wouldn't sell.

"It's the typical beautiful-spot-in-the-West mentality," says McCowan. "The last guy in the door wants to close the door behind him."

McCowan, who considers among his "close friends" such outspoken environmentalists as Dave Foreman, Doug Peacock, and the late Ed Abbey, says he is trying to "merge homes into the environment." Stucco or stone walls and native landscaping will disguise the new houses, which will be surrounded by open land.

The first 18 plots for his 76-unit "Anasazi Plateau" development should be ready in October. Lots start at $150,000.

McCowan is also building nine homes on 20 acres adjacent to the bench owned by Gibbs Smith, owner of the environmental publishing company Peregrine Smith Books.

The third developer, Jim Ruch, a former board member of both High Country News and the Grand Canyon Trust, says he bought his land with hopes of selling a few lots to finance a retirement home. He planned to put a conservation easement on 80 to 90 percent of the property, he says.

Ruch says he found that Springdale's zoning requirements would make his plan difficult. "Town codes have easily doubled the price I have to charge for a lot just to get my money back," he says.

Ruch says he was open to a conservation buy-out until a lawsuit over property near the bench from Gibbs Smith drained his pocketbook. When Milo McCowan broke ground on Anasazi Plateau, which covers most of the bench, Ruch concluded conservation was a lost cause.

"To acquire my land (for open space) without (McCowan's) would be absolutely stupid," says Ruch. He plans to build five homes on his 46 acres.

When McCowan, Smith and Ruch are finished with the Rockville Bench, the number of buildings in Springdale will have grown by roughly 40 percent.

Karla Player is furious. "They're not environmentalists," she says. "They're greedy developers."

Her only consolation, she says, is that Springdale is confined by canyon walls and the Zion National Park boundary, so "once every square inch of ground is developed, it'll still be a small town. This won't become a Park City, but the flavor of the town is slowly going down the tubes."

Greg Hanscom is HCN's assistant editor.

You can ...

* Call planner Coby Jordan at his Rockville, Utah, office, 801/772-3800, or

* Call developer Milo McCowan at River Realty, 801/674-1444.

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