Historic wagon trail at heart of new subdivision

By Zenaida Sengo • The Times-Independent

The Grand County Planning Commission approved a new high-density housing development in Spanish Valley Nov. 13 after resolving disagreements between planning commissioners and landowners over whether an easement regulation should be enforced.

The approval of the future 15-lot development had been in legislative limbo for two years, most recently over ambiguity in the land-use code regarding easements. When the Stocks family learned of the dispute, they joined efforts to regain access to the area they’ve called home for eight generations, when Felix Grundy Murphy and Mary Elizabeth Murphy first arrived in Moab in 1881 via horse-drawn covered wagon.

The 24-acre rocky slope slated for the Sandstone Cliffs subdivision lies east of the family’s namesake, Murphy Lane, and north of Munsey Drive. Lifetime Murphy Lane resident and retired uranium miner Jerry Stocks learned of the easement debate in an Oct. 25 article in The Times-Independent. Stocks, 79, sought the support of his family to reclaim the use of a trail he built, roughly in line with the proposed easement location in connection with an old pioneer wagon road in the 1960s that stems off Munsey Drive.

“I was hired to build the road by my uncle Vic as another mail route and to move cattle,” said Stocks. “I could watch the cargo planes fly by to the old airport.” Victor “Vic” Murphy was the brother of William Murphy, Stocks’ grandfather, known for operating the Murphy Brothers Cattle Company with his brothers in and around what is now Canyonlands National Park. The Murphy Brothers built the Murphy Trail, and assisted in widening the Shafer Trail, both popular recreational trails within Canyonlands.

Will’s older brother, Felix Jr., was the skilled builder among the brothers, constructing the rock house and log cabin that were part of the Murphy Ranch on the area of the proposed subdivision. Stocks’ grandmother, Edna May Webb Murphy, was born in what was the first post office in the area and her husband, Will, would deliver mail and fruit from the family farm on horseback. He also ran his ranch using the wagon trail network.

Historian Verona Murphy Stocks, Stocks’ mother, through the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, recorded the history of the Murphy Ranch and homestead off Murphy Lane.

The Stocks family first became aware they lost access to the Murphy Lane property when Stocks’ grandson was stopped for unwittingly trespassing there in the spring. Stocks and some of his siblings, children, and grandchildren wrote letters to the Grand County Planning Commission in the final weeks of the development’s approval, expressing how meaningful the area was to the family. Stocks’ sister, Lynda Stocks, wrote, “Walking or riding horses to access the wondrous Mill Creek brought a deep and abiding connection to the natural world.” His daughter, Cindy Stocks Montague, who still lives next door to her parents on Murphy Lane, also appeared with her father at the final public hearing. “It would mean so much to our family,” she said to the commission.

The motion to approve the development with an easement requirement passed unanimously despite previous differences in opinion.

“We are so grateful for Kevin Walker, it’s unbelievable what he did,” said Stocks Montague after the ruling. Walker, a planning commissioner, was largely responsible for the final decision in favor of the easement, having previously requested the commission table the item, which allowed the Stocks family to weigh in. Walker also acted as the most prominent voice at the meetings for preserving community and recreational access to public lands, a view Planning Commissioner Cricket Green had challenged.

Green was the only planning commissioner initially opposed to the easement. During the tabling in October, she expressed her own frustration at the excessive length this particular development approval had been subjected to. Then, during the Nov. 13 meeting, prior to voting, she cited non-permitted trail access across other property lines as a reason the easement enforcement would be useless. Green asked, “Why have a trail leading to nothing?” But County Planning Commission Chair Gerrish Willis said, “I think (approving) bits and pieces are OK. Once a development is in place, it’s almost impossible to acquire access where there isn’t any. If there’s going to be public access through the property, the time is now.”

Landowner Diana Carroll initially cited vandalism and a consensus of opposition among neighbors as reasons for opposing the easement, but she conceded when the process dragged on.

Stocks Montague expressed sympathy for the added tension. “I don’t want to cause problems, or infringe on anyone else’s property,” she said. “I understand developments are going to happen, but I want a balance.”

Other commissioners followed in support. Planning Commissioner Rachel Nelson said, “Having a designated trail would minimize social trail impacts.” Walker added that a footpath to a scenic recreation area would be “of potential benefit to developers.”

Currently, the only access to the Mill Creek Rim Trail and Power Dam recreational area is via a parking lot off Powerhouse Lane, an increasingly congested area locals often feel has become overrun by tourists. In addition to approval, the easement was decreased in width by three feet due to its non-motorized designation and the compromise to minimize its impact. The 12-foot-wide path will travel between two proposed rural-residential lots and ascend to the trail.

When reflecting on walking the trail, both during her childhood and while pregnant with her own children, Stocks Montague said, “I’m so excited. I can’t wait to walk here again with my children, and their children. I owe this to my family members who aren’t here anymore to speak for themselves. I owe it to my children and my grandchildren, and future generations to come. The whole community deserves this. It’s going to become my favorite spot to walk my dogs.”

Her father agreed, “This land is dog and kid heaven.” Stocks was proud of having just celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary with his wife Marie, but was scratching his head at the condition of the road he built with a tractor almost 60 years ago. “This road’s gotten really messed up” he said comically. “I guess it needs more work.”