When I meet Sky Chaney at his home in the relatively posh Kanab Creek Ranchos subdivision, in piñon-juniper foothills not far from downtown, he is quick to point out that he owns and rides an ATV and four-wheel-drive vehicles. "We spend a lot of time out on the dirt," Chaney says.
But locals have a nickname for people like Chaney: a "move-in." He represents a demographic trend: Retirees from elsewhere are increasingly settling here.
Chaney is a retired psychologist and part-time college professor from Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. He and his wife, Bobbi, bought a house here in 2005. As they've put down roots, they've become active in community theater as writers, producers and performers; one recent musical comedy involved Internet dating. Obama posters and wilderness images are displayed in their house.
Their position on the roads issue becomes clearer when I hear one of their musical compositions, a political parody performed by the Tumbleweedz (the Chaneys and two other couples). They can be seen on YouTube, performing "Highway Robbery" in cowboy hats with an exaggerated country twang:
"We're glad to have our monument, of Bill Clinton we are proud ...
He saved our precious landscape from the motor madness crowd ...
So let's take those ATVs and put them on a pile ...
Let's torch them with a match and burn them with a smile."
There's another reason Chaney is opposed to the Sagebrush Rebels. After a few years here, he noticed his property taxes skyrocketing. He formed the Taxpayers Association of Kane County to explore the causes, focusing on the roads claims, the resulting pricey lawsuits and their costs to residents.
"For many people, over the last four years, their property taxes have about doubled, and I realized there had to be something wrong," Chaney says. Through the Taxpayers Association, which has a 450-person mailing list, Chaney and others have pressed the county government for accountability. The group filed an open-records request in early 2010, seeking to review county documents that would reveal the county's legal expenses and any connections with the property-tax hikes. The county government resisted the request and demanded that the group pay $27,000 to cover the cost of compiling the information. A Brigham Young University journalism professor called the sum "outrageous" in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Ultimately, the county government retracted its demand for reimbursement and turned over 60 pages of budget spreadsheets. Chaney says the numbers are difficult to decipher, but he estimates that the county has spent at least $1 million on legal expenses for the roads cases. He believes the actual total could be double or triple that amount, considering related costs, such as computer equipment, staff overtime and contract labor for surveying and mapping. He acknowledges that there is more behind the tax hikes than just the lawsuits: Some resulted from a local economic boom and bust in the 2000s. (The county government hired a bunch of new employees and launched construction projects just as the bottom fell out.)
Habbeshaw insists there's "no correlation" between lawsuit expenses and the property-tax hikes. He estimates the county spent roughly $60,000 to $100,000 a year on legal expenses up until 2009, a small fraction of the county's budget, which has ranged between $6 million and $8 million in recent years.
The lawsuit costs have also been shared by the Utah state government and taxpayers statewide. Over the past decade, the Legislature has allocated roughly $13 million to support efforts to assert counties' rights over backcountry roads, ranging from mapping to jumping into the lawsuits, according to the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office. Noel , who is still in the Legislature, has also wrangled a way to force all Utah drivers to share the costs of the legal battle. In 2009, he sponsored legislation that has allowed counties to divert one-third of the money they get from statewide gasoline taxes to cover roads litigation or secure titles to roads. By tapping its share of that tax revenue stream, Kane County can now spend more than $300,000 each year on lawsuits without any impact on county tax rates.
The Taxpayers Association's inquiries aren't about county finances, Habbeshaw says. He points to Chaney's songs and his appearance in a photo of "activists" on the SUWA website as proof that the association is a front. "It's more about providing a shell cover for his environmental activism than really an interest in taxes," Habbeshaw says.
"The county (government) doesn't want local residents and taxpayers to really know how much the actual cost is," Chaney responds, "because there will be more people thinking that it hasn't been worth it. I know people who are (off-road drivers) and longtime residents of this area who are in favor of the county owning these roads through the RS 2477 process but are dead against (the county) spending all this money on this."
Ray Wells is proof of that: "My opinion is we're just throwing that money away. The only people coming out of it ahead is the attorneys."
Restaurant-owner Houston, the former county commissioner, thinks that many of the back roads should be managed by the county, but regrets that the whole legal war was started. Now, he says, it's too late to back off. Whenever he inquires about the cost of the lawsuits, he says, "I always get the answer that it's not directly costing us money, but obviously it's got to be costing us something."