The evidence of this simple truth is in our Year in Review. The words and paragraphs and photographs that follow in today’s edition and conclude Jan. 3 serve two purposes. The first has value for us – we can provide a story to fill newsprint during the one week of the year when stories are hard to come by in a small community – and the second has value for you: a look back on the year is a great way to help one firm up his or her opinions about how things are going. A refreshed perspective can be a powerful motivator.
You will certainly come across a story or two that prompts a response along the lines of, “Oh yeah, what ever happened with that?” You will be reminded that a lot happens over the course of a year; some of the news is good, some is bad and some is horrible and as painful for us to revisit as it is for you to read.
More than anything, you will be reminded that for all of Moab’s issues, none appear to present an insurmountable problem. Our photographs, what we in the news business pretentiously refer to as “art,” are often artful. They, too, will remind you of the uncommon natural beauty of southeastern Utah.
We would be remiss in inviting you to read all about 2018 one last time without wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019. Thank you for reading The Times-Independent.
–Doug McMurdo, associate editor
The year 2018 began with budget drama at the county and a new mayor was sworn in at Moab City Hall. Resident Michael Liss proposed turning Arches into the country’s first solar-powered national park, and Spanish Valley residents’ worries over a new development came to light.
Grand County passed its budget by the end of year deadline, but it took a special meeting two days after Christmas that was not painless. Clerk-Auditor Diana Carroll, who at the time was the county’s budget officer as well, was essentially accused of presenting a final budget with numbers that did not entirely match what council members previously approved.
Carroll in her defense said she did what she was told to do. “You guys have me so confused,” Carroll said at one point, claiming the council failed to give her clear direction. She would eventually surrender her budget duties to Chris Baird.
Emily Niehaus was sworn in as mayor after 16 years with Dave Sakrison at the helm. New City Council Members Karen Newton-Guzman and Mike Duncan joined Niehaus, who told supporters at a brief swearing-in ceremony that taking office felt surreal at first. She later told them to hold her accountable.
Liss, perhaps the biggest “big idea” guy in Grand County, pushed on behalf of the group “Arches for the People” to have the park receive its power through solar power. He also suggested what would be another first for national parks: the establishment of a reservations system in an effort to cut down on congestion at the park – and in Moab. “Let’s do something incredible,” he said.
Mayor Emily Niehaus promoted transparency at City Hall in her first official council meeting. Niehaus said business would be conducted differently than it had been in the past, and she even left chambers at one point when a conflict arose between her role as mayor and her status as founder of Community Rebuilds.
Meanwhile, roughly 300 people showed up for a town hall meeting at the Grand Center. There were nearly as many topics discussed by an engaged audience: tourism, congestion at Arches National Park, state Medicare expansion, public lands issues and affordable housing.
In other news, the city hired a full-time code compliance officer to monitor junky properties and possible zoning violations under a system that would be customer driven rather than government driven. Also, the Moab Area Travel Council approved funding free concerts at Swanny Park to the tune of $16,700.
The first Grand County baby born in 2018 came on Jan. 14 when Moesley Eva Bri Jones was born to Meritt Hobbs and Danny Jones.
Clerk-Auditor Diana Carroll’s 12th and final year in office continued to go badly. She had fallen far behind in producing the legally required published minutes to Grand County Council meetings. “I’ve been a little busy with the budget,” said Carroll.
Carroll also came under fire for reportedly leaving out nearly $17 million in the budget regarding five special revenue funds. The omissions prompted the Grand County Council to form a budget advisory board (that would go on to meet weekly for several months later in the year) and take away the budget officer position from Carroll.
Grand County School District Superintendent JT Stroder introduced a “new paradigm” for students from 7th to 12th grades. The school administrator said differentiated instruction teaches to an individual student’s knowledge, not his or her age group.
The goal was to give students extra time who need it and allow students who can move forward to do so when they’re ready.
The city council listed the need for affordable housing as its top priority during a weekend retreat. Other priorities included building better relationships with other political subdivisions in Grand County and the State of Utah, pushing for tweaks to how transient room tax dollars could be spent, and water conservation.
The Grand County Water and Sewer Service had the same idea on conservation, discussing the potential to ban in-sink garbage disposals and require on-demand hot water heaters.
Local musician Sand Sheff was invited to perform at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering held each year in Elko, Nevada. He said he was featured in a documentary by Utah filmmaker Chris Simon, and that exposure “probably” earned him the invite.
The process of turning Grand County EMS into its own special service district outside the Grand County umbrella began with a resolution. The logic for the move, at least in part, was the realization that EMS provides a vital public service that shouldn’t be subject to the vagaries of budgeting for 17 different departments.
Then-Museum of Moab Director John Foster was credited with digging up “the oldest identifiable dinosaur fossil bone ever found in Utah.” The news came nearly 13 years after Foster found the fossil just north of Moab in the Chinle Formation, on property the Bureau of Land Management oversees. “It was a blind luck find in a way,” said Foster of the fused dinosaur vertebrae.
Revenue began to inch up at the Old Spanish Trail Arena. While improvements were made – and continue to be made – events grew from about 60 in 2016 to more than 100 in 2017 – leading to a revenue increase of about $10,000.
Construction of the primary runway at Canyonlands Field Airport and the terminal remodel were moving along, according to Director Judd Hill.
The work is being done in advance of SkyWest Airlines running commercial flights out of Canyonlands beginning in May.
Five lawsuits filed in protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order to significantly shrink Bears Ears National Monument were consolidated in federal court.
Several environmental groups and the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute Indian tribes and Navajo Nation were the plaintiffs. In the meantime, mineral leasing opened up.
Five years after the Utah Division of Wildlife in a controversial move introduced mountain goats in the La Sal Mountains, environmental groups that had filed lawsuits released a report alleging the goats were causing damage to nearly 60 plant varieties on the mountain.
The National Park Service removed acres of the invasive tamarisk tree near Delicate Arch. The massive project was years in the making, as the trees clogged drainages, causing the road to flood, oftentimes to the point it needed to be closed.
Water woes were the top concern at a Spanish Valley open house held to discuss the Spanish Valley Area Plan, an initiative that could add nearly 14,000 residents to the area within two to four decades. Potential land use changes also weighed on the minds of residents.
Plans to widen Highway 191 from 400 North to the Colorado River Bridge have been on the drawing table for nearly a decade, but they wouldn’t go away. The Utah Department of Transportation on Feb. 20 told folks the $13 million project would begin in 2019.
The Grand County Council declined to pass a resolution that would challenge the Utah Legislature’s prior year decision to allow nightly rental operators to advertise on websites such as air.BnB. The issue was local control and whether the allowance would remove the one tool local governments had to oversee the rentals.
The Travel Council’s efforts to promote the region as a winter destination were paying off. According to Director Elaine Gizler, numbers were increasing year over year in December and January by 26 and 28 percent, respectively.
Another mass shooting, this one at a Florida high school that took the lives of 17 people in February, prompted JT Stroder, superintendent of the Grand County School District, to reassure the community that faculty and staff had taken a proactive approach to preventing gun violence. A key element of the plan involved reaching out to students deemed “at risk” and “in need of support.” Stroder sent a letter to parents that explained the plan. “Campus safety has been a high priority for me wherever I have worked,” said Stroder, who was hired in 2017.
It was March and that meant the filing deadline to run for political office in Utah had arrived.
Orrin Hatch announced he was stepping down after a 42-year career in the U.S. Senate, and former Massachusetts governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced he would seek to replace Hatch.
Closer to home, current Grand County budget officer and Grand County Clerk/Auditor-elect Chris Baird – who previously served on the Grand County Council – would face off against Lisa DeRees to see who would replace Diana Carroll, who’s stepping down after serving three terms.
The Moab City Council was asked to back a moratorium on new water rights dedicated to the Moab-Spanish Valley aquifer.
The Moab Water Conservation and Drought Management Advisory Committee offered the council a prewritten resolution that would formally request the Utah Division of Water Rights to stop issuing the rights. The committee cited the impacts of climate change and the “uncontested” view that the aquifer already was over-allocated.
Mitt Romney was the keynote speaker at the Grand County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner. Fresh off a somewhat surprising endorsement from President Donald Trump, whom Romney roundly criticized during the 2016 campaign, the 71-year-old told a reporter his experience in politics and government service, as well as the relationships he had built while gaining that experience, would help him in the Senate.
The Grand County Council passed a resolution opposing HB 253, a state law passed in 2017 that made it legal for non-permitted rentals to advertise on websites, such as airBnB. The county argued the law benefitted illegal short-term renters, and was expensive and labor-intensive, trying to make them accountable.
Those who irrigate with Ken’s Lake water were looking at a 30 percent restriction under a plan under consideration by the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency. The agency delayed action in order to give a couple of storm systems a chance to change its collective mind.
About 40 Grand County High students, along with faculty, participated in a 17-minute nationwide walkout to protest gun violence in America following a mass shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17.
Residents who live near Swanny Park signed a petition asking the city to curb its enthusiasm in issuing special events for the park. One of them, Christy Calvin, said the city should direct events away from residential areas after more and more events were held at the park – sometimes two and three different events at a time.
It isn’t often a governing board at any level willingly cedes some of its authority to others, but that’s exactly what the Moab City Council did in giving the city manager authority to appoint the city’s police chief, attorney and public works director, a duty traditionally owned by the mayor. The council, however, did not relinquish its control over the city manager.
In what would become the political story of 2018 – a status that would likely be retained in 2019 – prominent Grand County Republican Lynn Jackson at the Grand County Republican Caucus announced the form of government in Grand County was going to change following the enactment of House Bill 224.
“The (legislature) finally decided this goofy little system we have in Grand County is no longer acceptable. There will be partisan politics, there will be no recall provision, and there will be no term limits, so if you’re a county commissioner and you are doing a good job, you can stay as long as you want.”
Meanwhile, shell-shocked Democrats never saw HB 224 coming. At their caucus, Grand County Democrats expressed grave concerns to the law, which effectively rendered the seven-person nonpartisan council noncompliant with state law. The electorate had repeatedly endorsed the current form of government.
Efforts to better manage Main Street traffic had been an on-again off-again conversation in Grand County for decades. A potential parking ban on the street was met with alarm from business owners, particularly on north Main.
Democrats were still stung by the “sneak attack” they claimed local Republicans launched and, ironically, a nonpartisan county council was suddenly rabidly partisan as a 4-3 vote led to the passage of a resolution that placed this question on the November ballot: Shall a study committee be appointed to consider and possibly recommend a change in Grand County’s form of government? The action set the stage for a showdown between the county and the Lynn Jackson-led Republicans who filed paperwork to initiate the change of government process.
Rebecca Hunt-Foster, a Moab-based paleontologist, was part of a team that named a newly discovered species of dinosaur unique to Arkansas.
The 2018 Easter Jeep Safari drew thousands as it rolled into town.
Trinity Yazzie was one of three Grand County High students to be named Sterling Scholars. Fellow seniors Grace Osusky, Forensics and Speech; and Tyler Moreau, Social Science; joined Yazzie as Sterling Scholars.
The Grand County Council and the Moab Valley Fire Protection District agreed to an arrangement that had the county paying the department when it responded to incidents outside of fire district boundaries.
Of the $11 billion in deferred maintenance costs at national parks, Arches was $25.6 million behind and Canyonlands was even further degraded at $40.7 million. That was the bad news. The good news was that several projects were underway at both parks.
Some mysteries solve themselves, like when a new political subdivision is in the process of being formed and only four people file for four available seats on the inaugural governing board. But that’s exactly what happened as Grand County EMS moved from under the auspices of Grand County to become a stand-alone agency.
Construction of the main runway at Canyonlands Field Airport was on schedule for completion later this month and the remodeling of the terminal also neared the finish line.
On a sad note, Moab Elks Lodge No. 2021 reached a different kind of finish line. Dwindling membership compelled local Elks to surrender its charter in hopes of reviving it in a few years. The doors closed at the end of March.
The stress of campaigning for elected office evaporated like water on a hot griddle for Grand County Clerk/Auditor candidate Chris Baird. His opponent Lisa DeRees withdrew due to a busy schedule less than a month after filing.
The City of Moab faced a lawsuit regarding the proposed Lionsback Resort after deciding a change to the plan was minor rather than major, thereby eliminating the requirement for additional public hearings. The proposed change? Swapping out a lodge with 50 single rooms to a hotel with 50 three-bedroom units.
The City of Moab held an open house to gauge what was on people’s minds regarding downtown reconstruction. Those concerns were primarily parking, as well as pedestrian safety, bike lanes, lighting and a bypass.
The Grand County Council unanimously approved a letter to the Utah Attorney General to determine the constitutionality of HB 224 – which would require the county to change its form of government.
San Juan County made decisions that would impact Grand County. The first was its approval of the Spanish Valley Area Plan. The second was a nod from San Juan planners that approved the Sky Ranch development phase one. Taken together, room was made for 7,300 new residents.
Grand County Council Vice Chair Curtis Wells took credit for HB 224, telling critics the required change in government would make the council more efficient. He also called the current form of government “a disaster.”
Comprehensive management plans for the Colorado and Green rivers were being drawn up by a host of state agencies. The end goal was to protect resources.
Hundreds arrived for the Sixth Annual Fallen Peace Officer Trail Ride.
HB 224 continued to dominate headlines as the Utah Attorney General’s office was brought into the fray. Dan Burton, chief of policy for the AG, had a couple of questions to answer at the behest of a sharply divided Grand County Council: The first question: Was it constitutional for Utah to force a county to change its form of government? The second question, in the event the answer to the first was yes: Did the law as it relates to HB 224 give Grand County the authority to initiate the change of government process, or did that right go to a group of Republicans that filed a signature petition prior to Grand County passing a resolution?
The housing market was hot – as long as a person was in the market for an overnight rental. The fact residential construction was outpacing commercial building turned out to be a mirage after Grand County Building Inspector Jeff Whitney presented his study of the Highway 191 commercial corridor. Most of the houses under construction would house tourists instead of residents. Meanwhile, a total of six hotels were under construction as national chains looked to fill rooms with Moab’s 2 million annual visitors. Whitney urged the county council to consider high-density housing in order to meet the demand for residents – a comment that would become a theme and then a mission for local governments.
The Grand County Council appointed staff and citizens to the ad hoc Moab Transit Authority Study Committee and directed them to research and propose a plan for all transit-oriented development, facilities, vehicles, bicycles, and electric-pedal assist bicycles …” according to Vice Chair Curtis Wells.
The question is meaningless now, but what was the cost of HB 224? The county would either have a three- or five-person commission by 2020, and they would not be part-time citizen legislators, but full-time elected officials – with larger paychecks that come with the change in government.
The Moab City Council voted unanimously to grant The Spoke restaurant approval to launch the Spoke Brewery Company on site.
The San Juan County Planning and Zoning Commission once again considered the proposed Sky Ranch commuter airport near the Grand County line. The proposal upset neighbors, but local businessman Mike Bynum said his plan was in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and requirements.
The Moab Area Community Land Trust was ready to build 240 units on a donated 32-acre parcel once known as Arroyo Crossing. Meanwhile, an inspired Grand County Council looked to develop private-public partnerships with entities interested in developing affordable housing. While there’s a pronounced shortage of affordable housing, there’s no shortage of tourists.
Tourism tax revenue jumped $800,000 from 2017 to 2018 - $4.4 to $5.2 million. The increase corresponded with a 6.2 percent jump in tourists visiting Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.
The City of Moab settled a case over who owned a piece of land near Cinema Court. The case began in 2015 on paper, but in reality, it dated back more than four decades. In 1974, the Grand Vu park created waste parcels between the subdivision and what would become Cinema Court apartments.
The city approved a $12.8 million budget that included $85,000 for nonprofit community organizations.
Faculty and staff voiced displeasure over a decision to reassign Grand County Middle School Principal Melinda Snow over a bullying issue that might not have been handled appropriately.
The 26th Annual Moab Arts Festival was coming to town, and this time it had the blues. Blues musicians, to be more precise, for the first time in the event’s history.
The city’s assured housing policy discussions suggested for the first time a requirement that developers of hotels and overnight lodging would have to provide a component of affordable housing to their projects or pay a fee in lieu of doing so.
Gov. Gary Herbert named Don Torgerson to the Seventh District Court, which includes Grand County. Torgerson had to wait for the Utah Senate to confirm the appointment following a public hearing. Torgerson was the contract public defender for several cities and counties.
The Canyonlands Rodeo roared into Moab like it has for the past 50 or so years and once again, the stock contractor was Bar T Rodeo, which began in Moab.
Outfitters didn’t have to worry about paying workers at least $10.10 an hour after President Donald Trump in an executive over overturned the Obama-era rule.
An ancient fossilized skull found near Moab reportedly provided evidence that the super-continental split occurred more recently than previously thought.
Ninety-three Grand County High seniors graduated and the class of ’18 was in the books. Co-valedictorians Grace Osusky and Tyler Moreau in so many words encouraged their classmates to live the life they’re meant to live.
Corona Arch was named a National Recreation Trail in an effort to better protect the popular site. Meanwhile, scientists studied the vibration of natural rock arches in an effort to determine why or how the Wall Arch in Arches National Park collapsed on a calm summer night with no indication anything was wrong.
A grand opening was held at Canyonlands Field Airport to celebrate the completion of a new runway and expanded terminal.
Grand County rank and file employees were given a 2 percent cost of living allowance, which the Grand County Council made retroactive to the beginning of the year.
Ten homes burned to the ground when a suspicious wildfire raged through Pack Creek. In what would become the breaking story of the year, scores of firefighters battled the blaze for two hours. “We’re damn lucky we didn’t get anyone hurt,” said Sheriff Steve White. The Cinema Court fire was started by a teenager and broke out at about 5:45 p.m. June 12. Moab showed its true colors following the destructive fire when the community showered its support to the families who lost everything.
The Moab Area Travel Council sought $250,000 from the Utah Office of Tourism to fund a Southern California advertising campaign.
Not to be outdone by the Grand County Council, the Moab City Council voted to provide city employees a 3 percent pay raise.
Six days after it started, the destructive Cinema Court Fire was officially out. Investigators continued to look for a cause, but on this point, they were certain: A human being started the fire and the Grand County Sheriff’s Office offered a $1,000 reward for information. Meanwhile, donations for the affected families reached $25,000. All but two of the families had insurance.
A graduated fee schedule was one recommendation made by the recently released assured housing Nexus study, a joint project between Grand County and the City of Moab.
A fireworks vendor was found just in the nick of time after the city’s usual pyrotechnic company took a better paying gig in Blanding.
An anemic 49 percent primary election voter turnout was actually an improvement after Grand County went to an all-mail ballot.
Leslie McCourt-Nussman was hired as Grand County Middle School’s next principal.
Congress mulled a bill to change management of the San Rafael Swell. Rep. John Curtis introduced the bill, which was embraced by the more conservative counties in his district, but conservation groups fretted Curtis’ bill undermined the purpose of the swell.
In next week’s edition of The Times-Independent, we will look back on the second half of a very eventful 2018.