LEEDS – The town of Leeds made the news in May as some concerned citizens raised voices of opposition to a proposed development.
Grapevine Wash, an area of land located between Leeds and Toquerville, is the site of the future Grapevine Wash development – or at least it will be if the developers are able to overcome certain hurdles.
One of those hurdles has been public opinion, particularly from some of Leeds’ more vocal residents. Concerns about eminent domain, roads and infrastructure, and perceived clandestine dealings by the developers have been voiced in numerous town council and planning committee meetings.
“Leeds is a small town, but we have a lot to say,” said Danielle Stirling, one of the operators of the Stirling family farm. The farm has existed for over a century, Stirling said, and the development of Grapevine Wash could destroy it.
Stirling’s primary objection is related to a proposed access road to Grapevine Wash that would cut right through the farm. The Stirlings have said they will not sell the land and will do what they can to preserve the farm for future generations.
“Our main goal is to preserve our way of life and protect the farm,” Stirling said.
The proposed road is a part of the Leeds Master Road Plan from 2007. The developers used the Master Road Plan when considering potential access routes, including the segment going through the Stirling farm. Supporters of the Stirling farm have said the town of Leeds, as influenced by the wishes of the developers, would use the power of eminent domain to acquire parts of the farm, along with other properties, in order to benefit the development.
In an email response to St. George News from Drake Howell, the project manager for Grapevine Wash, he said: “Grapevine has no right to the private property of others. The Town of Leeds established the Leeds Master Road Plan that identified the location of the road in question–not Grapevine. Our original master plan has no road in that location and the road is not necessary for our development.”
Additional concerns over the use of eminent domain were added due to a section found in the draft of the Grapevine Wash Final Development Plan currently being examined by Leeds town officials. According to a statement on the Grapevine Wash website, this section has since been deleted. Alan Roberts, Leeds’ mayor, also said the section had been stricken from the final development plan during the May 23 town council meeting.
In an open house held by the Grapevine Wash developers, also held on May 23, Tracy Belliston, one of the principal owners of the development, said: “Only (Leeds) has the power of eminent domain. We don’t.”
Roads and infrastructure
For a time, some Leeds residents were worried Main Street would be turned into a five-lane highway in order to accommodate traffic generated by Grapevine Wash residents. This proposal, along with various other alternatives, was highlighted in a public meeting held on April 19.
Main Street currently handles 1,700 cars-per-day. At full development, traffic from Grapevine Wash is projected to reach 17,000 cars-per-day.
One of the alternatives discussed was a four-way freeway interchange on the north-end of Leeds. Town councilor Joe Allen said Leeds “is very much in favor of a north interchange.”
The idea of the interchange received a more positive reaction than expanding Main Street, which town councilor Nate Blake had Mayor Roberts confirm was “off the table” during the May 23 meeting.
As for the Grapevine Wash developers who are still in the process of considering viable routes into and out of the proposed development, Howell said they were in favor of preserving the current character of Main Street.
“We support the interests of Leeds,” Howell said.
Questions about the infrastructure for Grapevine Wash have also been asked. More particularly – who is paying for it?
Needs of water, sewer, electricity, roads and the like must be met. Putting such infrastructure into place will not be inexpensive, and some Leeds residents are afraid they will be left with the bill, especially if Grapevine Wash fails economically.
“Leeds is not investing in this project,” Howell said during the May 23 open house after being asked what Leeds would have to pay for.
Belliston added, “Our intent was never to come in and burden the town of Leeds with our project.”
As for the economic viability of the development, and the fear it would fail in the long-run, Howell said development would be done in a “very deliberate and methodical way.”
He added Grapevine Wash was meant to be built according to market demands. Development would also be in phases, with only portions of the development being built “as the market dictates.” Howell also said the development’s “mixed-use zoning will allow (the developers) the flexibility to build properties that meet market demand in various economic circumstances.”
Still, some Leeds residents, like Elliot Sheltman, the president of the Leeds Domestic Waterusers Association board of directors, are not convinced. “I see big risk here,” he said in the May 23 town council meeting.
Sheltman said he didn’t feel the developers were well-prepared, as they did not make specific plans or market studies available to the public. He also said “if (sewers) are a part of the deal, they’re going to have to bring (Leeds) in.” Leeds currently employs septic tanks instead of a sewer system.
Utah law dictates that a building with sewage connections must connect to a sewer system if it is located within 300 feet of the building’s property line.
Howell said the developers preferred Grapevine Wash have its own sewage capacity and that the associated cost of that system would be borne by them alone.
In the May 23 town council meeting, Mayor Roberts stated Leeds would not pay for the development’s sewer.
From town manager to project manager
According to a statement Belliston made to the Leeds town council on May 9, he said “through rumor and innuendo, it has been asserted that (the developers) have had undue, improper, even illegal influence over town and county officials with respect to decisions that have been made regarding our project. These statements are false and defamatory….”
Part of the “rumor and innuendo” Belliston mentioned revolves around Howell. Howell worked for the Town of Leeds as the town planner/manager from June 2009 to May 2010. Prior to being employed by the town, Howell worked with Leeds officials as a representative of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
According to a comment on the public forum hosted on the Get Involved Leeds website, Elliot Sheltman wrote to the developers concerning Howell:
“…Our then Mayor and Council members decided that Drake should be the Manager of the Town. We did have a couple of meetings, that were packed with local taxpayers, where the majority (all) disagreed with the Town Manager idea. Thank goodness those in the majority were ignored and the complete power that once belonged to our Mayor and Councils was given freely to Mr. Howell so he could get us up to speed and we could then begin our journey on the road to bigger and better things…
“…Many in Town were very happy to see Mr. Howell make the quick transition from the Leeds Town Manager to the other side of the bargaining table as the Representative for your Development. I’m sure that you all feel the same way. His knowledge of our local Town codes and ordinances and the deep feelings of trust and kinship that he had ‘developed’ with the Town Mayor and Council members, who voted unanimously to give him the Town Manager job, must have made that lack of trust that one might normally feel when negotiating things like Developer agreements and Local Districts virtually non-existent.”
The full comment can be seen here.
Howell was approached by the Grapevine Wash developers in April 2010 after his position with Leeds had been reduced to part-time.
“As we have stated publically and reiterate here, any assertion of any improper relationship between Grapevine Wash and Leeds town officials is completely false and inflammatory,” the developers said via email to St. George News.
Speaking on behalf of the developers, Belliston told the town council that if particular accusations against Grapevine Wash did not stop, litigation may result. “Spreading public and anonymous lies is not fair to us. It’s cowardly and it’s illegal … If necessary, we will pursue legal action to prevent this kind of unwanted conduct.”
Leeds resident Don Goddard responded to Belliston’s words in the May 23 meeting: “…I do object to being threatened with a lawsuit…(the developers) threaten a lawsuit if we don’t do want we’re supposed to.”
Goddard also said he would go to the state attorney general if he found anything “the least bit wrong” with Grapevine Wash, and mentioned he had already been told something may be questionable.
Lack of communication?
Some residents whose land rests adjacent to Grapevine Wash have also voiced their objections to the development. Eminent domain was once again mentioned, as well as a perceived lack of communication between the property owners and developers and town officials.
Kevin Lee spoke to the town council in the May 23 meeting, and requested better communication between town officials and the citizenry.
“Before any proposals … that influences anybody’s property, before its put on paper and discussed for years, is it possible to contact that property owner and at least talk to them before?” Lee said. “Like (before) the planning commission put roads through the private people’s property, at least talk to them before it gets put on a map and gets disturbed widely, without any input from the town at all. That would really be wonderful.”
Lee also asked the town leaders to do a better job at keeping residents informed about the agendas to be discussed in public meetings.
In the same meeting, Alan Howard, a man who owns property next to the Grapevine Wash development, said he would not give up any property. “I will not give another inch without somebody suing me through eminent domain. And that is a promise.”
Howard’s property borders a road that could be widened for better access to the development. He also said a parcel of his land was marked on the development plans as a possible spot for a natural gas substation – a parcel of land he has no intention of giving up. Like Lee, he also mentioned a lack of communication with property owners, but addressed his comments to Howell specifically.
“So, Mr. Drake, you have not talked to me, or attempted to talk to me,” Howard said. “No one from your outfit has attempted to contact me in anyway, and yet, if you want more (land), you’re going to have to fight for it, I promise you that.”
According to the developers, they have “met all the public notice requirements” associated with Grapevine Wash’s annexation into Leeds and land use applications. They also said they had presented their plans in public settings for nearly four years now and have appeared in over 25 separate public meetings concerning the development.
In the past month, a website for Grapevine Wash has been launched as a way to better inform the public. The developers also said they had held two open houses since the start of the year, and “specifically invited neighboring property owners by mail to attend.”
Howell had also made his personal mobile phone number available to concerned residents who had questions.
“Usually it is just a matter of misinformation that has led to public concern,” the developers said. “We absolutely respect the rights of the property owners.”
The fight for public opinion continues
The fight for public opinion continues as the developers of Grapevine Wash attempt to move their project forward while a highly vocal segment of Leeds’ population opposes it.
As of May 23, a petition has been set up on the Get Involved Leeds website for the purpose of putting a stop to the Grapevine Wash development.
A public hearing at the Leeds Town Hall has been arranged for Tuesday, June 5, at 6 p.m. The mayor will be on hand to address issues raised in the May 23 town council meeting. The announcement also asks that “pitch forks be left at the door.”