HURRICANE – Landowner Bob Brennan has waited to turn a shovel on prime development land he owns, but the desert tortoise and government bureaucracy have stood in his way.
In the early 1990s the desert tortoise was listed on the endangered species list. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, came up with the idea of a Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, the first one in the nation being established in Washington County in 1996. Much of the land in the red hills north of St. George and Washington City became part of the HCP. A provision of the HCP was that privately-held, developable land would be purchased at fair market value or exchanged for property of similar value, so the landowners could pursue development.
Brennan, of Brennan Holdings, owns the largest piece of private land in the reserve, approximately 800 acres north of the Green Springs area in Washington City. Jim Raines, a consultant for Brennan Holdings, said the chances of taking Brennan’s existing property out of the reserve are minimal because the piece of property in question has a high density of tortoises. Raines said they even looked at land in northern Utah but that Washington County presents the best potential for acquiring lands.The last three years Brennan has been seeking a land exchange or purchase, he said.
Land equal to the value of Brennan’s inholdings are still being considered in Long Valley, Leeds/Silver Reef and Bloomington, the latter zoned commercial, but Brennan would prefer 1,200 acres of Bureau of Land Management property near Sand Hollow Reservoir on Sand Mountain.
The initial step of a land exchange is a memorandum of understanding between the BLM and Washington County, which the two entities are now entering, Raines said. That will lead to a feasibility report, which, if accepted by the Department of the Interior, would start the exchange process. The feasibility study takes two years, Raines said. He and Brennan wanted to get the process going before the HCP is renewed in a little less than two years.
“It’s a very lengthy, time-consuming process,” he said. “We’re not moving forward with any assumptions. It’s been 18 years and these properties need to be resolved. We’re not demanding anything drastic. We just want a plan.”
In February or March of 2016, a new permit will be issued for the HCP and if the private land has not been acquired or exchanged by that time, government funding to complete such deals might be in jeopardy, Raines said. If no plan for an exchange or purchase is set in stone by the time the permit is renewed, the burden for paying for such a deal could fall on the residents of Washington County, something that Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner is doing anything he can to try to avoid, Raines said.
Gardner said land for exchange with development potential owned by the BLM is very limited and that government funding to accomplish exchanges and acquisition of private property is drying up.
The Washington County HCP was one of the first in the nation, so it’s charting new territory in its renewal process, Gardner said.
County Administrator Dean Cox said the difficult situation was brought on by the Endangered Species Act. He said it’s similar to Iron County’s struggles with prairie dogs, but Iron County does not have an HCP.
“We’ve been able to grow because of the HCP,” he said. “There is a lot of uncertainty with its renewal.”
If the cost of the exchange shifts to taxpayers, it would lead to “stratospheric costs,” Cox said. The county is in an uncomfortable place because if the county loses the HCP and are too stubborn to pay for inholdings, “it could economically throttle us,” he said.
“I’m not convinced the tortoise is that threatened,” Cox continued. “This might be one of our last best hopes of making our private inholders whole. It’s not an easy situation.”
The only way government funding will be available for an exchange is if a plan is in place, Raines said. The only way such a plan can work is if many different entities are in agreement.
Hurricane City is one of the entities which must sign off on the exchange. Raines said he and Brennan talked to Hurricane City a year ago. The land exchange issue was brought up again in the city’s March 20 City Council meeting to universal disapproval. Raines and county representatives met with the city again on May 1 during a work meeting before the regular City Council meeting, at which time Hurricane Mayor John Bramall and the City Council seemed a little more amenable to a compromise. The sticking point to Hurricane’s blessing on the exchange is all-terrain vehicle, or ATV, recreation.
Raines is well aware of that and is in favor of keeping ATV recreation on Sand Mountain himself. He helped create the Tri-State ATV club, he said, donating time and helping the organization with its website. Raines admitted this during the May 1 work meeting and told the council that if Brennan acquired the Sand Hollow parcels, he would purchase approximately 1,200 acres owned by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, that is, SITLA, and facilitate some sort of recreation and public-purpose lease in which a local government entity could acquire the management of that area of Sand Mountain, Raines said.
Gardner said the SITLA acquisition would be independent of the BLM exchange. He said that not much ATV riding goes on in the parcel Brennan would like in exchange. Only in the last year and a half has a water tank on the land been used as an ATV staging area, Raines said.
“I don’t know what better deal we could offer,” Raines said, speaking of the proposed SITLA exchange. People think it’s about to happen and are up in arms about it, he said, but Raines and Brennan just want to get through the feasibility process to see what’s possible.
Raines made it clear that he and Brennan are not trying to do anything behind Hurricane’s back; they just want to get to the table and talk and start the process rolling.
Hurricane Mayor John Bramall said he recently took “Sen. Hatch’s entourage” to Sand Hollow, including John Tanner, Hatch’s staffer over environmental issues.
“I don’t know if that helped the exchange,” Bramall said.
Bramall said Tanner said he’d like to keep the area open.
“To us, it’s a gem,” Bramall said. “It has beautiful views in every direction.”
Bramall said he met with Gov. Herbert in late April and Herbert said he would support what Hurricane wants to do in regards to the property. Bramall said he would like to get a permanent restriction on the rest of the land if the exchange goes through.
“I’m getting all sides of the spectrum in terms of potential outcomes,” he said. “I’m willing to listen.”
Brennan’s plans for the land, if the exchange is successful, is to make it a high-end destination resort type setting that is environmentally friendly, low density and low impact, which will blend with the surrounding area. Raines said the property would be zoned low-density, low-impact, kind of like Kayenta – a desert community in nearby Ivins.
“There’s no market out there to do subdivision and ranch properties,” Raines said.
They’re looking at all options, he said, and want to do it in harmony with citizens.
He said he would like to keep communication lines open and not decrease recreation opportunities – it would be developed in a way that wouldn’t ruin it.
Ed. note: Elements of this article have been corrected.
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