The Grand County Council voted 6-0 on March 4 to approve a conditional-use permit for the seasonal project, which will be located on the old Taylor Ranch site in Professor Valley. Council member Elizabeth Tubbs was absent from the meeting.
The council’s action does not clear the way for Canyonlands Field Institute (CFI) to build any permanent structures on the property off County Road 233.
However, the nonprofit group will be able to set up 10 tipis, two yurts and two trailers between April and October. The fire-resistant and earth-toned tipis and yurts will be taken down during the off-season, according to its application for a conditional use permit.
Once CFI’s operational season begins this April, the project is expected to have minimal impacts on traffic in the surrounding area, according to CFI Operations Manager Dave Montgomery. In an average week during operations, an estimated two to six vehicles will come and go from the site, Montgomery said.
While the council itself had little to say about the project, the public hearing on the conditional use permit drew a range of reactions from the program’s supporters, as well as its soon-to-be neighbors.
Grand County Middle School Principal Melinda Snow was among those who urged the council to approve CFI’s application as soon as possible.
She noted that local students normally travel long distances to take part in field-based experiences. Yet CFI’s education center is in their backyard, and 30 to 50 middle school students are able to make the most of its programs each year, she said.
Moab Rafting and Canoe Co. owner Theresa Butler said the program offers unparalleled learning experiences for people of all ages.
“It’s a priceless opportunity for anyone, age five to 95,” Butler said. “Particularly the youth.”
Steve Russell, an attorney for neighboring property owners Anne and Peter Lawson, said he doesn’t think that anyone would object to the continuation of a simple, rustic field camp.
But Russell alleged that CFI is planning a huge expansion at its new location. He claimed that the nonprofit intends to build 15 to 18 permanent structures at the new site, and asserted that it has even more ambitious plans for year-round commercial development.
Salt Lake City attorney Janelle Eurick Bauer, who appeared on behalf of neighboring resident David “Spark” Livermore, echoed those allegations.
In addition, she said it appears that CFI’s proposed uses violate provisions of the county’s land use code that aim to minimize impacts on neighboring residents.
Livermore is also concerned about the potential for fire danger, noise and possible impacts to a nearby raptor’s nest, Bauer said.
However, Castle Valley Fire Department Chief Ronald Drake previously informed the county that he supports CFI’s request for the permit, based on the fire safety standards it has already adopted.
The new field site is within the Castle Valley Fire Protection District’s boundaries, and the department has the resources to respond in the event of an emergency, Drake said in a Feb. 6 letter to the county. It also has an additional engine stationed at Sorrel River Ranch, which will allow for an even quicker response, he wrote.
Speaking in response to Russell’s allegations, Canyonlands Field Institute Board member Dave Bierschied assured the council that his group did not request a conditional use permit in order to pursue “some grand idea.”
CFI brought the Lawsons on board as soon as it started the county’s application process, and didn’t even know that they had a problem with the project until a few months ago, he said.
As for Livermore’s concerns about the raptor’s nest, Bierschied said a state wildlife official determined that the site is not critical habitat. The nest is the only one of its kind in the area, and it’s actually on the Lawsons’ property, within an estimated 100 feet of Livermore’s residence, he said.
Bierschied called the group’s overall plan “bulletproof,” and said it followed the county’s application procedures step by step.
“You have a process set up by law, and we went through that process,” he said.
Ultimately, Bierschied agreed that CFI will report to the county council on an annual basis.
CFI plans to settle into the new location immediately. It’s scheduled to host its first group of students at the site on April 15.
“We have a lot of work to do,” CFI representative Stacy Dezelsky said March 4.
The environmental education center had been operating since 1987 on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property about three miles away from the new site. But the lease for that property expired due to a change in the agency’s management plans.
That’s where Jennifer Speers of the Palladium Foundation entered the picture.
Bierschied reached out to the former Joe Taylor Ranch’s new owner and asked her if she would consider a request to set up a field camp on her property. Speers agreed.
“I felt this would be a great fit for the both of us … [knowing] CFI’s ideology concerning the land was much in line with mine,” Speers wrote in an undated letter of support to the Grand County Planning Commission.
That conversation kicked off a lengthy process to clean up the property, raise funding for planning and construction activities and work through the county’s permitting process.
During that process, the council amended the county’s land use code to allow environmental education centers and field research stations as conditional uses in the county’s range-grazing zone.
No one from the public spoke out against the proposed change at the time, according to the official minutes of the council’s Oct. 2, 2012 meeting. The council went on to pass the amendment at its Oct. 16, 2012 meeting.