ST. GEORGE – Bob Brennan is frustrated. As one of three landowners with property remaining in the Red Cliffs Reserve created by the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, he is seeking compensation for his land.
The reserve was created by the HCP to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise, and at the same time allow development to continue in any other tortoise habitat in the county. The county is under pressure to finish up acquisition and exchange transactions with owners of remaining privately-owned property subjected to the HCP, as a February 2016 deadline looms for renewal of the HCP.
Brennan acquired property in the Green Springs area of the reserve when loans he had previously made to James Doyle and Environmental Lands Technologies were settled in a 2010 bankruptcy with Brennan receiving title to about 800 acres. Since 2010, he and Jim Raines, a full-time land consultant for Brennan, have been working to identify Bureau of Land Management property in the county appropriate for exchange under the terms of the HCP.
The HCP states that landowners will be compensated, and allows for a private landowner to trade his land for BLM property of equal value. Thus far, six parcels of land in the county have been identified as possible exchange properties, although the process is in the early stages.
Sand Mountain property prospect
However, one of those parcels is 1,200 acres in the Sand Mountain OHV Area. The potential encroachment into the popular off-highway vehicle area has become highly controversial and is being opposed by off-road advocates including the Utah Public Lands Alliance and others. While the land exchange process is in the early stages, tempers are already flaring.
Brennan said he is frustrated by recent statements made by off-road advocates.
“When they say ‘there are many other properties in the county that could be traded to Brennan,’ you can’t just make that statement without any facts,” Brennan said. “If they know where those properties are, we would love for them to tell us what they are. If they know other properties in the county for us to trade for, I would love to see them.”
“We have analyzed all the land in the county. We not only looked in Washington County, but we looked throughout the rest of the state, and have found properties that only equal about half of Bob’s value,” Raines said. “We really don’t have any interest in taking 5,000 acres on the west desert that has no development potential whatsoever.”
Brennan said he is not attached to the Sand Hollow parcel, but needs to get compensated for the Green Springs land he cannot develop. He believes the only other option is to leave the Sand Hollow parcel alone, and get paid for the remaining value by Washington County.
While Brennan does not have his heart set on acquiring the Sand Hollow property, that particular property is quite valuable in terms of development potential, he said, and accounts for about 60 percent of the value he needs to be compensated for in exchange for his Green Springs property tied up under the HCP.
“I don’t care about Sand Hollow. I could care less about owning that property. Have the ATV people talk to the county commissioners and put a tax or impact fee to get the money,” he said. “I’ll take this off (the table) today, I don’t care about this property,” Brennan said.
Without the Sand Hollow parcel, compensation can only happen through a tax or fee, Brennan said. This is not a popular option, he said, and may not even be possible even though he is willing to spread payments out over 15 to 20 years.
“I’m not even asking for the money now. I’m trying to resolve a problem,“ Brennan said.
What is the value?
At the heart of the issue is valuation – getting a fair exchange for the value of land rendered useless for development by its inclusion in the HCP. While Brennan will not disclose how much he has invested in the property, he said that his Green Springs acreage is worth “north of $110 million.” However, Brennan said, he is willing to take $24 million in land value or in cash, and that figure includes the Sand Hollow parcel.
Bob Sandberg, HCP Administrator, said any discussion of valuation and appraisals is premature. Six properties are being considered for land exchange with one or more of the property owners, he said.
“This is still quite preliminary until BLM does their environmental assessment and determines which if any of their properties that they will trade,” Sandberg said. BLM’s role in the process is to take the lead in completing exchanges, he said.
“Once they get to that point, then we have to go back and look at both the properties, and the way BLM’s regulation reads ‘they have to trade at appraised value,’” Sandberg said. At that point, the BLM will have to do appraisals, and make the agreement with the private landowners remaining under the HCP.
Appraisals on Brennan’s land have been done in the past, but Brennan did not provide that information. He said the previous appraisals were commissioned by the federal government related to a separate land transaction, and he does not have the right to release them.
“The old appraisals are irrelevant to any land exchange since new appraisals will be required for any exchange and the exchange process will be open to public review,” Raines said.
“All I’m saying is that I’m willing to negotiate, I’m willing to donate a bunch of property, I’m willing to work with people in any way possible but I’m not going to get thrown under the bus and not get this resolved,” Brennan said.
If Brennan does acquire the Sand Hollow property, he plans a low density, environmentally sensitive development, with low profile single-story homes on three to 5-acre lots. Brennan also plans higher density townhomes along the Southern Parkway.
“Except for the stuff down by the parkway, it would be hardly noticeable that this project ever even occurred,” Brennan said.
However, Raines said that while there is a concept for the development, there are no set or formal plans for the project because the project is not certain, and actual building could not take place for four or five years.
Objections from off-road advocates
While visual impact is a factor, even more important is the loss of area for the recreational users, said UPLA President Gil Meacham. With the number of recreational users growing rapidly, it is important to keep areas for the trail system to grow with the increased use, he said.
“Last year, over 100,000 people entered Sand Hollow State Park and over 70 percent of them went into the Sand Mountain OHV Area,” Meacham said. “It is not logical for the county to want to take away more land from this area.”
One of the most scenic and popular trails in the area is Milt’s Mile, and the top of that trail crosses over the southeast corner of the proposed exchange property, Meacham said.
“Even with large lots and minimum visual impact of the homes, there would be still be several homes within 100 yards of the trail. The people running the trails will be losing their experience, and the homeowners will not be happy to have the dust and noise of people that close to their high-end homes,” Meacham said.
Off-road users are also concerned with the loss of trails. The proposed exchange property has several trails running through it, which Meacham said are documented by aerial photos taken as far back as 1993. And there are currently a lot more all-terrain vehicles, utility task vehicles, motorcyclists and four-wheel drive vehicles sharing the space, he said.
Another concern is loss of access points to the Sand Mountain area. The exchange property is currently being used as a staging area for off-roaders, replacing access lost when the Southern Parkway was completed, Meacham said. A proposed dam in Warner Valley could flood parts of two trails, and eliminate more access points.
“The recreational users represented by Utah Public Lands Alliance would love to see Mr. Brennan’s situation solved, but we don’t believe that the correct way is to remove land from the Sand Mountain Special Recreation Management Area. This area was designated in 1999 to be left as open travel area for the OHV community in return for many thousands of acres that were previously ‘open travel,’ but are now in the reserve. Compressing more and more users into smaller areas is not good stewardship,” Meacham said.
It is possible for the private landowners to pull out of the HCP, Brennan said, but the “whole HCP would collapse.”
The HCP does state that any landowners can remove their property from the reserve or HCP, but they would have to go back to the Fish and Wildlife Service and develop their own HCP, Sandberg said. If landowners remove their property from the HCP, they would then not be covered by the HCP – and they couldn’t develop the property without permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The HCP puts them in a better position to be compensated than had they not been in the HCP and the reserve,” Sandberg said, “that’s how I interpret it.”
Before any land exchanges can occur, several things have to happen, Sandberg said. First, all the information needs to be gathered and given to the BLM. This stage includes biological surveys, and also cultural assessments to see if there are historic or archaeological sites or value.
Then, a full Environmental Assessment will be done, with full public input, Sandberg said.
“That EA will be done with full public involvement,” Sandberg said. Any interested parties will have a chance to comment. Opinions count, he said, “but they need to come in with data and information in order to influence the BLM.”
While the HCP will expire and need to be renewed in 2016, Sandberg does not expect any problems. The HCP could be renewed as it is now, but will likely include a few minor changes. Small changes have been made to the HCP agreement over the years, he said.
- 20140210 FWS Status of the Desert Tortoise – PDF from link on FWS Web page on the Mojave desert tortoise
- Red Cliffs Desert Reserve HCP amended 11-3-09 – PDF from link on Red Cliffs Desert Reserve website
- Hatch proposes national recreation area at Sand Mountain
- Land users angry about land swap, county may consider alternatives
- Desert tortoise land dispute triggers lawsuit against county
- Conservation Plan, Red Cliffs Reserve expiration looms; bridging interests for development, preservation
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