Luxury looms over Moab

A planned upscale resort has activists fearing "Aspenization"

 

MOAB, Utah - The name sounds serene, but Cloudrock, a proposed luxury resort planned for a mesa southeast of this redrock-rimmed town, has ignited a local controversy.

The plan, unanimously approved by the Grand County Planning and Zoning Commission in early March, outlines a clustered development for state-owned Johnson's Up-On-Top Mesa: a 225-room wilderness lodge called Cloudrock, 150 residential condominiums and 110 two-acre single-family homes. Developers say the homesites could sell for upwards of $600,000 each.

The land is managed by the State Institutional and Trust Lands Agency, the agency responsible for maximizing revenue from state lands. After two years of negotiations, SITLA has agreed to sell the home sites and lease the lodge property to the Salt Lake City-based Moab Mesa Land Company.

"We've been very careful to select a group that is responsible and well-capitalized to ensure a quality development," says SITLA's Ric McBrier. "This is a win-win situation for us and for Grand County. This will be a quality project."

But what McBrier considers "quality" has some residents worried about what they call the "Aspenization" of Moab and Grand County.

"It's selling exclusivity," says Bill Hedden, a Castle Valley resident and active land conservationist. "We have a real strong anti-elitist strain around here. And this will be a very elitist resort. Your average person won't be staying in the lodge or building a home up there."

Selling exclusivity

Residents concerned about Cloudrock's effects on local culture and property values have organized as the Moab Citizens Alliance. Though the group has attracted more than 100 members since its start in November, spokesman Matthew Gross says its chances of stopping the development are slim.

Putting a "wilderness lodge" on Johnson's Up-On-Top requires special permission from the county, and the Moab Citizens Alliance tried unsuccessfully to get the county to tighten its zoning regulations. Partly in response to alliance concerns, the planning and zoning commission did attach some 24 conditions to the approved plan. They include measures to improve traffic safety and protect Grand County's underground aquifer.

In order to delay or stop future high-end developments, alliance members are trying to find ways to strengthen the county land-use code and change SITLA's maximum-profit approach to land management. Gross and other local activists say that Cloudrock is a sign of larger changes in southeastern Utah. "We're moving from a tourism economy to a real-estate economy," he says.

"These developments come in, and the cost for the average person becomes prohibitive," says Molly Gates, who helped to organize the alliance. After growing up in Park City, Utah, and living near Jackson Hole, Wyo., she's seen the negative effects of resorts and housing developments that cater to the wealthy. "It's already difficult to find affordable housing here," she says. "And that's only going to get more difficult."

Open to the public

Developments like Cloudrock are becoming increasingly common in small towns around the West. "This trend toward gentrification used to be predominant in ski towns," says Luther Propst, executive director of the Arizona-based Sonoran Institute. "Now it's happening in other types of places."

But Richard Grice, a Placerville, Colo.-based planning consultant who advises Grand County, says there are few similarities between Moab and areas such as Jackson Hole or Aspen.

"All those places that people look at as bad examples of loss of community had a central downtown core that drew the second-home crowd," Grice says. "Moab's downtown doesn't have those qualities. The developments we're seeing are located outside of town in more isolated areas. So I think it's unlikely that the cost of housing in the core of town will be greatly affected."

Moab Mesa Land Company President Michael Liss points out that pricey housing developments already exist in Grand County. "Moab has a well-developed high-end real estate market now. And those lots are selling for anywhere from $195,000 to $495,000. We are a natural extension of that existing market," Liss says.

He also argues that his development will be somewhat different. "This is a very environmental project," he says. "Eighty percent of the land will be left undisturbed. And in some areas that have been overgrazed for years, we'll be revegetating with native plants. The development we're proposing is going to present some environmentally friendly ideas that will have implications elsewhere in the valley."

As to the perception that the development will be "exclusive," Liss says he hopes area residents will use the lodge, restaurant, spa and the outdoor amphitheater he plans to build on the mesa. "Obviously, we're the upper end of the spectrum from Motel 6," he says. "But the lodge will be open to the public, and I hope many Moab residents will take advantage of that."

Propst, like the members of the Moab Citizens Alliance, has a different vision of the future. "You're seeing the development of a really fragmented two-tier society," he says, "where a community is reserved for people who come from elsewhere."

The Grand County Council will hold a public hearing on the plan April 2.

Lisa Church is a freelance writer in Moab, Utah.

You can contact ...

  • The Moab Citizens Alliance, 435/259-1517, www.moabutah.org;
  • Grand County Planning and Zoning Commission, 435/259-1343;
  • Moab Mesa Land Company, Michael Liss, 212/243-3991;
  • Ric McBrier, State Institutional and Trust Lands Agency, 801/538-5170.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Lisa Church

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