County attorney gets more time to review infrastructure coalition proposal
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Aug 07, 2014 | 2397 views | 0 0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Attorney Eric Johnson, who drafted an agreement creating a seven-county economic development coalition, discusses the proposal with Grand County Council members on Aug. 5. Photo by Rudy Herndon
Attorney Eric Johnson, who drafted an agreement creating a seven-county economic development coalition, discusses the proposal with Grand County Council members on Aug. 5. Photo by Rudy Herndon
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Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald asked the county council this week for an extension to complete his review of a complex and controversial proposal that would allow Grand County to join a seven-county economic development coalition.

The council had been scheduled to vote on the proposal at its Aug. 5 meeting.

At Fitzgerald’s request, however, the council voted 5-1 on Tuesday to postpone consideration of the matter until he signs off on the proposed agreement and resolution. Council member Gene Ciarus voted against the majority, and Ken Ballantyne was absent from the meeting.

The coalition, which would include representatives from Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, San Juan, Grand and Uintah counties, would plan for and develop new and future infrastructure — including highways, energy pipelines, water storage facilities, rail lines and tourist amenities — across eastern Utah. It would also promote multiple uses of the region’s natural resources in ways that “balance environmental values and sensitive natural features” with access, use and development of those resources, the agreement states.

Chairman prohibits public comment; reverses self

The Aug. 5 meeting turned contentious when Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson announced that he would not allow people in the audience to comment on the proposed agreement.

Jackson said he believes the council is mindful of the questions that its constituents have raised, and he said it would go over them point by point.

His announcement drew an immediate rebuke from former council member and Canyonlands Watershed Council Executive Director Chris Baird — who is also a candidate for Grand County Council this year — and others in the council’s chambers.

“It’s preposterous that you’re going to ignore the citizens of Grand County and not allow us to have a voice in this process,” Baird said.

As tempers flared, Grand County Council vice chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs urged Jackson to open the proceedings up to the public.

“[W]e should not prejudge what anyone out there may or may not say, and assume that we know what they’re going to say,” Tubbs told Jackson. “I feel it is really important that we follow our procedure. This is setting us up for all kinds of issues down the road.”

Jackson ultimately deferred to Tubbs, and at that point, Baird and six other citizens voiced their views.

Baird did not object to the idea behind the proposal. But he said he believes that two key things are missing from the document.

To begin with, Baird said, it needs to state that Grand County has complete authority within its borders, regardless of whether or not a project stretches across jurisdictions.

“Otherwise, you’re just subjugating yourselves and all of the citizens of Grand County in the future, and I don’t see what it would hurt to say that,” Baird said.

Secondly, Baird pushed for specific language that would allow the county to remove itself from the coalition’s final geographic boundaries in the event that it withdraws from the group.

“Those two things are all that I’m really asking for on this, and I think that it’s in your and your citizens’ interests that we not subjugate ourselves that way by diluting our power and allowing the six counties to steamroll us on any of these projects,” Baird said.

Others voiced concerns that the agreement would create an additional layer of government that could rob Grand County of its political voice.

“This is why we separated from England,” Castle Valley resident Michael Peck said.

Speaking on her own behalf, Castle Valley Town Council member Tory Hill urged the county to reject the proposal. 

“By agreeing to this, you are in effect creating a new governing board that basically takes the decision making out of our county — out of our hands — and gives it to other members of the coalition who have not been elected in this county by our people, and may have other agendas that we know nothing of,” Hill said.

In light of those concerns, Fitzgerald suggested that the council could take its time before it makes a critical decision that could have long-term consequences for Grand County.

Nothing will “blow up tomorrow” if the council holds off on a vote for the time being, he said.

“I don’t think the county has to rush and jump into this, because the immediate benefit to the county next week is minimal to nonexistent,” Fitzgerald said.

However, both Ciarus and Jackson said they are comfortable with the wording of the agreement, and they saw no need to delay a vote on the proposal.

“This is not an agreement that takes any authority away from this county,” Ciarus said.

It would, he said, put the county in a better bargaining position when it goes to Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) in search of funding.

Likewise, Ciarus believes the agreement also sets up an organization that would give eastern Utah’s counties more clout at the state level.

Jackson said the council would retain its decision-making powers by voting on supplementary contracts for each individual project that affected Grand County.

Nor would the agreement cost the county any of the authority it currently has, he said.

Jackson said that the council currently has no control over any projects that cross state- or federally-managed lands, beyond its powers under the county’s land use plan or its zoning regulations.

“The county’s legislative body would have no authority to say no,” Jackson said.

Fitzgerald, however, said he is concerned that the county could hand some of its decision-making powers over to the coalition.

“Citizens are very uncomfortable with losing any power, and from a personal perspective, I think, maintain as much self-control over yourself and your county as you possibly can and never give it away,” Fitzgerald said.

When Jackson pressed Fitzgerald for his legal opinion — as opposed to his “political opinion” — the county attorney said the document is rooted on solid legal ground.

“I don’t think there’s anything illegal about it, if you decide to join,” Fitzgerald said.

Proposal’s author explains language

Attorney Eric Johnson drafted the agreement, and he acknowledged that its language is fuzzy in places due to variations under state law.

According to Johnson, different types of projects are currently subject to different kinds of statutory authority. For instance, the county would retain full control over any road projects within its jurisdiction, he said.

“Even if your neighbors want to do something, they have to wait on you,” Johnson said.

However, if another county wanted to build a municipal water line through Grand County, the council would have little say in the matter, he said.

It’s less clear whether the county could approve or reject natural gas or oil pipelines that passed through its borders. However, Johnson said he believes that an affected county would hold onto its decision-making powers in those cases.

In light of that uncertainty, Johnson said he would advise his clients of the potential risks they would be facing, and then ask them why they would want to undertake those risks.

Some of the language in the agreement is deliberately open-ended, he said, because no one knows what kinds of infrastructure projects might be on the horizon.

“Where some of those may or may not go is unknown,” he said.

Johnson said much of the current momentum is behind a proposal to build a railroad line from the Uintah Basin to Carbon County via Indian Canyon. There has also been talk of funding passenger rail service to Moab, as well as a new recreational trail system in Daggett County, he said.

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