Newcomers battle over river resort

  • PUT A RESORT HERE: Robbie Levin

    Stanley Yung photo

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.

A stretch 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.

But five 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 resort.

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 says.

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 place.

A blank check for developers?

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 schools.

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 restaurant.

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 says.

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.

Traditional PUD 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.

Rock 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 standards.

Even with the stricter rules, Grice thinks Levin's resort and a similar development slightly downriver from home-electronics magnate Colin Fryer could be approved.

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 resort.

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 intern

You can ...

* contact Mary Hoffhine, Grand County Subdivision Coordinator, 435/259-1343;

* mail comments to Grand County Council, 125 E. Center, Moab, UT 84532.

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