Moab City Council approves new Lionsback Resort status agreement as ‘minor change’ to original plan

The Moab City Council voted Feb. 28 to approve a zoning status agreement with the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and developer LB Moab Land Company, LLC, which treats a change to the previously approved Lionsback Resort plan as a “minor change” to be reviewed by city staff, rather than a major change that would require public hearings and re-approval by council.

Council members Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, Kalen Jones and Heila Ershadi voted in favor of approving the zoning status agreement, while Rani Derasary and Kyle Bailey opposed.

However, after the vote, councilmember Ershadi requested to change her vote or to revisit the issue at the next city council meeting on March 14.

Moab City Attorney Chris McAnany said although votes are final, the council does have the right to revisit a decision at its next council meeting.

“This is one of those votes that was so hard,” Ershadi said. “It’s good to know it’s open for potential in the next meeting as well.”

However, on Wednesday morning, March 1, Ershadi contacted The Times-Independent to say she has decided to let her original vote stand.

“I’ve decided it’s done,” she said. “ … It was a very emotional vote for me … There was no way to come out of that feeling good. I had a huge pang of regret after voting, but ultimately I’ve come to the same conclusion I had reached before. That it’s better for the city to have oversight than to have the development being built without having to conform to city [regulations].”

Revised plans for the first phase of the proposed resort located on SITLA land at the old Lionsback Campground, now include a hotel consisting of 50 three-bedroom units and a parking area to be located behind the hotel. The original plan featured a lodge with a total of 50 single rooms.

McAnany has said this new plan constituted a major change under city code, but SITLA and the developer have said ambiguities in the code and communications from previous city officials led them to believe that they could proceed with the new plan as a minor change, without undergoing a public review, as would be required in the case of a major change.

SITLA officials had said if the council did not approve the changes as a “minor revision,” which would bypass the city’s public review process, the project would move forward anyway, without city input. Under Utah law, developments on state-owned property are not subject to local zoning laws, so the Lionsback project could potentially move forward without the city council’s approval.

The most recent version of the zoning status agreement includes several new provisions. The most significant change is a clause that holds SITLA responsible for any legal costs incurred if the city is sued for treating the plan change as a minor rather than a major change.

The agreement also specifies that future amendments to the project will be reviewed at the staff level, without public hearing processes.

In an earlier draft of the agreement, SITLA reserved the right to withdraw from the land use agreement approved by the city in 2009, McAnany said. That language was struck from the agreement approved Feb. 28.

Other changes include a provision requiring new traffic studies, since the previous studies were completed eight years ago, and the developer has agreed to make improvements to Sand Flats Road concurrent to construction of the hotel.

Prior to casting her vote, Ershadi voiced concerns about water source protection, as the resort is located near Skakel Springs, one of Moab’s primary water sources.

John Andrews, associate director and chief legal counsel for SITLA, said the proposed changes to the plan would not affect the Skakel Springs area. He added that building sewer lines up to the resort would also allow nearby residences currently on septic systems to connect to the city sewer system, eliminating a possible source of water contamination.

Jones said he supported the zoning status agreement.

“I feel this is a reasonable agreement … The approvals for this were made by a previous council and there is a reasonable level of ambiguity for them to question the major/minor distinction,” Jones said. “It seems like an equitable resolution of that disagreement.”

He added that although the change has not gone through a public hearing process, “[The council members] have received substantive feedback from many citizens.”

Derasary spoke in opposition of the agreement, eliciting applause from several citizens in the audience.

“I’ve looked really hard at what kind of risk we’re taking if we don’t sign it and that weighs pretty heavily on me, but personally, I can’t vote to sign this agreement. Most fundamental for me is that I feel it’s a big part of our job to support our code,” Derasary said. “When I look at our code, and I look at what happened with this project, I do feel like it’s a major change … I’m unwilling to do it ethically, I’m unwilling to do it legally, and there may be a big price to be paid but that’s why I can’t support the agreement.”

Ershadi expressed similar reservations, but ultimately decided to vote in favor of the agreement.

“It’s the pragmatic choice, given the options we’re dealing with. There is some ambiguity I believe [in city code] … as to whether it would be litigated as major or minor,” she said. “Also, SITLA can leave and not deal with the city at all if they do, and I would rather have a working relationship and come to points of compromise.”

In response to a question from Ershadi, Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt said, “I think we’re all on the same page that SITLA has the right to withdraw completely from the city’s land use approvals process, the ability to most likely develop its own water sources up there … They could develop their own independent, totally self-contained sewage treatment facility and the city would have no say in what would happen with storm water runoff that would be conveyed off the site.”

Andrews said SITLA and the developer are pleased with the council’s vote.

“We obviously were happy with the original decision,” Andrews said. “The purpose of this was to achieve a compromise and compromise is always a good thing.”

According to documents provided by SITLA for the council meeting, the Lionsback Resort will be built in several phases, beginning with the hotel. Future phases call for construction of 18 employee housing units as well as 188 residential casitas.

ByBy Rose Egelhoff

The Times-Independent