Citizens to San Juan: ‘Let Moab have the tourists’

Coalition is ‘scared for our community,’ fights truck stop, while others voice favor during San Juan Commission workshop

Residents peruse three proposals for regulating commercial development during a workshop on Monday, Aug. 5 regarding plans for San Juan County’s portion of Spanish Valley. The proposals set out differing visions of how officials wants to regulate (or not regulate) lodging operations and other types of businesses. Photo by Carter Pape

Amidst a moratorium adopted by the San Juan County Commission that will end on Nov. 17, Spanish Valley residents are looking to get ahead of commercial developments, including lodging construction, in the southern part of the valley.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Grand County and the City of Moab recently ended their moratoria on lodging developments, with both opting to essentially extend the stoppages while they come up with long-term regulations. San Juan County has now taken a similar tact.

After plans to build a Love’s Truck Stop near Sunny Acres Lane gained public attention in the fall, San Juan County Commissioners Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy intervened in May to put a halt on not just new lodging in the valley, but any new commercial developments.

According to the text of the ordinance they passed, the moratorium was a response to “compelling and countervailing public interest to postpone new commercial and industrial development in the Spanish Valley Highway Commercial Zone until land use ordinances and policies can be given due consideration.”

Before the moratorium, Spanish Valley’s Highway Commercial Zone allowed for any type of business to be built anywhere within 1,000 feet of Highway 191. This meant that any type of business, from truck stops to strip clubs or big box stores and fast-food chains, could pop up anywhere along the highway with essentially no limits.

Now, Landmark Design, a Salt Lake City-based design firm that San Juan County contracted over a year ago to construct new planning and zoning in Spanish Valley, is working with elected officials, citizen groups and others to form a plan for commercial development in Spanish Valley’s Highway Commercial Zone, and Monday’s workshop was a part of this process.

Monday’s workshop

At a workshop on Monday, Aug. 5, for discussing commercial development along the highway in San Juan County’s portion of Spanish Valley, residents expressed divided opinions over the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration’s plan to sell land in Spanish Valley to Love’s Travel Stops. The audience generally agreed over the idea of limiting the amount of overnight lodging allowed in the area.

Mark Vlasic, the principal representative at Landmark Design, emceed the meeting, opening with a presentation of three plans for the audience to ponder during the workshop.

Among the key ideas Vlasic said the workshop was meant to resolve was the plan for the Love’s Travel Stop that could be built next to Sunny Acres Lane, just south of the county line with Grand. Impassioned disagreements over the plan made it hard to tease out the best path forward; Vlasic said later that there was “not a lot of consensus,” at the workshop.

Vlasic also said that he had recently learned in a meeting with representatives from SITLA that plans for the Love’s were not as final as he had previously thought.

When asked whether he considered the Love’s plan to be “pretty much a done deal” as he had said months prior, SITLA Resource Specialist Bryan Torgerson said after the meeting that he had been wrong in what he previously said. Outcry from locals in southern Spanish Valley has had an effect on the Love’s plan, and a deal between the company and SITLA has still not come to fruition.

Local action has also had an impact on larger plans for commercial development in Spanish Valley. At the workshop on Monday, the three options that Vlasic presented to the audience included one plan that had been developed recently with input of the Northern San Juan County Coalition.

Group pitches new plan

The Northern San Juan County Coalition, according to one of its key organizers Kiley Miller, is a group of 93 residents who live in southern Spanish Valley, formed in the wake of news that a Love’s truck stop was planned for the area.

Miller said during the workshop that the group was “non-political,” and comprised of individuals who she says are “just scared for our community,” in particular with respect to Love’s, and more broadly with the specter of similar developments on the horizon.

Vlasic incorporated many of the ideas and demands shared by the coalition into a plan that Landmark had previously formed over the course of roughly a year. That older plan was based on input from the San Juan County Planning Commission and public participation sessions. The new plan contained not-so-minor tweaks brought about by the coalition’s efforts.

All three options

Were San Juan County commissioners to vote in favor of the baseline option, the status quo of minimal regulation would hold in southern Spanish Valley. At the expiration of San Juan County’s six-month moratorium on commercial development along the highway in Spanish Valley, the pre-moratorium rules would simply go back into effect, leaving the area wide open to essentially any kind of commercial development, as long as it is within 1,000 feet of Highway 191.

The second option, the one Landmark spent roughly a year developing, constitutes a more detailed approach and is part of a larger plan for the whole of southern Spanish Valley—not just the area next to the highway— that the San Juan County Commission adopted in April 2018.

The plan designates areas along Highway 191 for heavier commercial development and other areas as part of the “flex zone,” described by Landmark as encouraging “market-driven business, commercial and residential development.”

The third option, influenced by requests from the coalition, was a scaled-down version of the second option. Whereas the second option would generally allow lodging developments to be built along the highway, the third option envisions a more restricted approach, limiting lodging developments either altogether or to two small areas near the highway.

The third option also focuses on community-centered commercial developments like daycares and local businesses rather than the tourist-based businesses that are more common in Moab.

Don’t want tourists

Residents during the workshop generally expressed favor for either severely or altogether banning new lodging developments in Spanish Valley, characterizing the boom of lodging developments in Moab in the recent past as a major hinderance for the area. Residents said they did not want Spanish Valley to meet a similar fate.

One resident said during the workshop that she wanted to “let Moab have the tourists,” a sentiment that many others echoed, while a few others said that allowing some lodging or larger commercial developments would boost the tax base of the county, which currently lacks resources to effectively administer and enforce proposed codes in southern Spanish Valley.

Landmark Design will now go back to the San Juan County Planning Commission to work out the best path forward, and they must form a plan by the end of the moratorium on Nov. 17.