Will Morgan County Residents Vote on Exclusive Resort Project?

It’s been more than three years since Morgan County officials approved the 11,500-acre resort called Wasatch Peaks Ranch, which will have 750 residential units and a private ski area, but the contentious litigation that spawned the project is still ongoing.

A big question before Utah 2nd Circuit Judge Noel Hyde is whether Morgan residents of 14,000 should vote on whether to overturn the 2019 ordinance that allowed the project to move forward.

[Related: Utah’s newest ski resort is for the megarich only | Takeaways from our report on Wasatch Peak Ranch]

Last week, Hyde banked a lawsuit filed by five of those residents trying to get such a referendum on the ballot that county officials had rejected. Opponents of the project argue that it should be left to voters to decide whether WPR-scale development is right for the formerly unscathed Wasatch Mountains, which rise west of the Weber River.

According to plaintiff Whitney Croft, the project deviated from both Morgan County’s overall plan and a community-produced vision document for the rural county’s future.

“The great thing about referendums is that people get to decide,” said Croft, who runs an aviary for exotic birds in Morgan. “If they want it, then so be it.”

As Judge Hyde prepares for his upcoming verdict in the case, he is preparing to hear motions filed under wraps on Wednesday in a separate case initiated by the developers.

Originally, that lawsuit sought $10 million in damages from the referendum’s five petitioners — Croft, Robert Bohman, Brandon Peterson, David Pike, Shelley Paige — and a sixth project critic, named Cindy Carter, who claimed her anti-WPR Activism illegally disrupted the project’s appeal to investors. They identified two investors, each forgoing a $5 million investment opportunity. But according to federal data, the developers have successfully netted $92 million in capital investments and memberships that cost $500,000 apiece.

In August 2021, Hyde found that the developers’ claims were flawed and concluded that the critics cannot be punished for participating in a democratic process, which is their right as citizens.

“They knew they weren’t going to win,” Bohman told the Tribune. “This is about intimidation.”

The judge is now reviewing the critics’ counterclaims brought under Utah’s so-called anti-SLAPP statutes, which refer to an acronym that stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” Such lawsuits are viewed as abuses of legal process to discourage public debate, but winning an anti-SLAPP lawsuit in Utah requires a heavy burden of proof.

The problem currently facing Hyde has to do with WPR’s financial data, which the critics want to access to determine the amount of damages to be claimed against WPR’s developers and hidden owners.

“There has to be punitive damages because what’s to stop the next outfit from coming in and throwing their money away and bullying voters and residents?” said Brandon Peterson.

Peterson and Bohman, both from families with roots dating back to Morgan County’s pioneer days, have publicly opposed the 2019 rededication of the former Gailey ranch as a “resort special district.” At the time, WPR had acquired a portion of the 12,700-acre property, which flows over the mountains into Davis County, from a partnership that included the estates of late Utah ski magnates Earl Holding and Dick Bass for an undisclosed sum.

County Council approved the WPR rezoning by a vote of 6 to 1, prompting Croft’s group to petition for a referendum to challenge the ordinance. But then-district secretary Stacy Netz Clark denied her petition on purely technical grounds.

According to court documents, it did not include the required “certificate” that each of the sponsors was a Utah resident, nor a copy of the contested regulation.

The five sponsors filed suit, arguing that the petition was valid and seeking a court order to hold a referendum. WPR intervened on the county’s side and has been doing the heavy lifting ever since. It claims the critics failed to meet the strict requirements for filing a referendum motion under Utah law.

As a notary, Croft notarized the signatures of her four co-sponsors, but the company claims Croft’s notarizations are not valid. And it says she missed a 5pm deadline to file the petition, noting the document was timestamped at 5:05pm

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WPR executive Ed Schultz declined to comment on the lawsuits, citing attorney’s advice, but defended the project in an interview with The Tribune. Schultz said the development will blend well with the landscape, significantly expand Morgan County’s tax base and job opportunities, and have a smaller footprint than competing proposals for the Gailey property.

“We are creating a legacy project. We do this for ourselves and for future generations, the children of our members,” said Schultz. While the majority will be extremely wealthy overseas second-home owners, he said, the club’s members will be carefully screened.

“The community is beginning to understand that these are good people. And even though they get to take part in this amazing travel destination, they still pull their pants down on one leg,” he said. “We take our membership qualification process very seriously. It’s not just if you have a check you can join. There is a full application process.”

Work on the project has since progressed and WPR has spent millions to implement its ambitious plans. Three ski lifts have been installed, construction of an 18-hole championship golf course is underway, roads have been built and the county has approved numerous paved residential areas, according to court records. Also available are 70 miles of hiking trails, an equestrian center, clay court and base village, all of which are exclusive to WPR members and their guests.

WPR is also in a legal battle with a ski lift operator who alleges the developers breached their contract. In that case, also pending in 2nd Circuit Court, Heber City-based Highlander Ski Lift Services & Construction, Inc. alleges that it was awarded nearly $1 million for its 2021 work installing concrete foundations and structural members for lift terminals and -towers are owed.

WPR’s then CEO, Bob Wheaton, hired Highlander, with whom he had previously worked during his years as general manager of Deer Valley. But the elevator installations at WPR didn’t go smoothly because the equipment wasn’t delivered on time and the developers didn’t maintain road access to the construction sites, the lawsuit alleges.

WPR’s attorneys are blaming Highlander, saying the contractor failed to complete the lifts in time for the 2021-22 ski season. They filed a counterclaim and a motion to dismiss the Highlander lawsuit, alleging that Highlander failed to properly plan, outfit, and staff the project. At one point, the contractor dropped an elevator tower from a helicopter, damaging the tower and leaving the helicopter on the ground.

A second tower was damaged when it collapsed because Highlander’s undermanned team failed to properly tighten its anchor bolts, the countersuit alleges. Additional delays arose when a crane was ‘destroyed’ during the installation of the upper lift terminal.

WPR claims it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring helicopters and heavy equipment to get the job done. The lifts became operational and WPR was able to welcome skiers in 2022, while a third lift was completed later that year.

The first houses of the resort are to be completed this year. But the lawsuits are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Justin Scaccy

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