ST. GEORGE – A proposed 410-acre development near the north entrance of Snow Canyon State Park is proving contentious because it would require an access road that would cross the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, home of the threatened Mohave desert tortoise.
The 410-acre parcel borders West Diamond Valley Drive near the intersection with state Route 18, and extends south of the north entrance of Snow Canyon.
The property is owned by developer Kirk Willey and is located east of the Diamond Valley Cinder Cone and sandstone formations that line the east side of SR 18.
Developing the property would require a 2,158-foot road to be built across a small corner of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve to connect to SR 18.
Willey is proposing a private two-lane paved access road with a center median; however, getting approval for the road is proving difficult.
The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was created 20 years ago to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise. The Habitat Conservation Plan set aside the 62,000-acre reserve while allowing development to continue on tortoise habitat in other areas of Washington County.
The Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee oversees the reserve and the recovery of the tortoise.
Willey appealed to the Advisory Committee for approval of the road Tuesday but was not successful – yet.
It was the second month in a row Willey has appeared before the advisory committee. Willey told the committee he is both blessed and humbled by his ownership of the land.
“I feel a really keen sense of responsibility to take a very careful, a very meticulous approach to get this right,” Willey said.
Plans are for 700 one-third to one-half acre lots in a low-impact development that blends into the surrounding environment.
“As I lay it out, I want to take into account individual trees and individual rock outcroppings and my plan is to leave everything as in-place and undisturbed as possible,” Willey said.
At least one local resident objects to the proposal, however.
“Although this is a small area of the reserve, I feel it sets a bad precedent to allow a private citizen through the area,” Lisa Rutherford told the committee during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“We will be giving up public land for a gated road. It sets a very bad precedent for incremental chipping away of the Reserve, which was not intended for private development,” Rutherford said. The developer should be held to a lower density development which would not require a road, she said.
The road through the reserve is needed for Willey to continue with the development; Washington County fire code requires a second entrance if a development contains more than 30 homes.
Seven hundred homes are planned, and the property’s 1,500-foot frontage on the Diamond Valley Road is not wide enough to add another entrance and still comply with the fire code.
Willey asked the Washington County Planning Commission for a variance, or exception, to the requirement for a second access road, but was denied.
“You have reported there are 700 new homes planned for the development, which far exceeds the maximum number of homes to utilize only one access,” county planner Scott Messel wrote in a letter to Willey dated Sept. 26.
In addition to compliance with fire code, the proposed road is needed for safety reasons. If the road is not built, it would take emergency personnel responding from St. George several extra minutes to reach residences in the development.
Benefit for tortoise?
From the Advisory Committee’s perspective, the issue boils down to whether the proposal is a net benefit to the desert tortoise, Larry Crist, who represents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the advisory committee, said.
While the site of the proposed road is not considered prime tortoise habitat by biologists, a new, paved road is not allowable under the current HCP agreement and would require an amendment to the document.
“I’m not prepared to vote for an amendment to allow the road without knowing whether it’s a benefit,” Crist said.
If the four-acre road were to be built, mitigation would be required – the impacted tortoise habitat must be replaced at a ratio of 5-1.
Willey has offered 11 acres of land in Leeds which adjoins the Reserve in addition to other property. The Leeds parcel adjoins the reserve and is believed by biologists to be much better tortoise habitat than Willey’s property, however, it will be analyzed by biologists to make sure.
The Technical Committee will analyze Willey’s proposal for mitigation and report their findings at the next advisory committee meeting Oct. 25.
A gamut of state and federal agencies
Because the proposed road crosses land managed by four different agencies, Willey has been busy acquiring the needed approvals.
Willey has received preliminary approval from the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation for the portion of the access road that runs across Snow Canyon State Park.
” … the Division does not believe that your current proposal constitutes a negative impact …,” to the park nor the visiting public, Division officials said in a letter to Willey.
Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration officials have also met with Willey about the proposed road.
“As long as SITLA would have access to its surrounding lands, SITLA is supportive of this road and feels that it would make its land holdings there more developable,” SITLA representative Aaron Langston wrote in a letter presented at the meeting,
Utah Department of Transportation has also given tentative approval for the proposed road; however, acceleration and deceleration lanes along with turn lanes may be required at the proposed intersection with SR 18.
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