2019 news in review: July – November

In 2019, despite moratoria to halt the addition of new hotels to the city’s and county’s project pipelines, some vested projects, such as the one shown here, continued File photo by Carter Pape

This is the second installment of The Times-Independent’s year in review — see here for the first half — covering news from July through November. News highlights included a city council election, Grand County’s form of governance, and issues of lost mail.

In the second half of 2019, Moabites voted to keep three city council incumbents running for reelection in office; OHVs almost made it into Utah’s national parks but didn’t; Moab hosted state legislators for a discussion about state tax reform and federal legislators for a discussion about public lands; and many more stories captured locals’ attention.

Some of the last six months’ top stories may be the top stories of the next six months or more, as well. The city and county are both drafting lodging ordinances that could pass as early as this month, and if they don’t — or even if they do — reaction from state lawmakers, who convene late January for the legislative session, will be at the fore of local officials’ attention.

Also in coming news, charges may be filed in early 2020 against a local mail carrier who was placed on leave amidst an investigation into allegations of mail theft at the Moab Post Office. If previous investigation timelines are any indication, the charges might be filed in January.

Locals will be watching many other stories throughout the year, as well, from efforts to overturn via referendum the recently passed state tax reform, the state investigation into Frontier’s telephone services in Castle Valley, the upcoming vote on Grand County’s new form of government, and more.

For now, here are the top stories from the last six months of 2019:

High School sends AP tests late

Late May, early July: A Grand County High School employee tasked with sending Advanced Placement tests to the College Board for scoring failed to send the tests on time, putting some recently graduated seniors on edge about scheduling their first semester of classes.

Principal Steve Hren said in early August that he had since sent the tests and they had been graded, saving recent Grand County graduates from taking any courses from which their AP scores might have exempted them.

Arches receives dark skies designation

Dark sky designations and ordinances were set in place to help preserve the natural ambience of the Moab area. File photo by Miguel Hinostroza

July 5: Months after the Grand County Council approved ordinances regulating outdoor lighting in the unincorporated county and a month before the city approved its dark skies ordinance, the International Dark Sky Association dubbed Arches National Park a Dark Sky Park, recognizing it for its low light pollution and preserving natural darkness.

State probes Frontier on telephone service complaints

July 8: The Utah Division of Public Utilities announces an investigation into Frontier Communications of Utah after multiple complaints about service quality and reliability from and around Castle Valley.

Filings since then show Frontier has attempted to avoid answering some questions put to it by the division. A recent court order compels them to answer some of the questions, including about the existence of any other investigations around the country into Frontier or it subsidiaries. Answers were due Dec. 16, and an update on the investigation is expected by Jan. 22.

Halliday counters self to help ban new lodging indefinitely

July 18: After voting down a measure 3-3 two days prior that would have indefinitely removed lodging as a use by right in unincorporated Grand County, the county council in a special session voted again on the matter, passing the motion on a 5-0 margin, overturning its previous vote.

Council Member Jaylyn Hawks, the absent member during the initial vote, voted in favor the second time; Greg Halliday switched his vote, and members Curtis Wells and Rory Paxman were absent for the second vote.

The council later ratified the second vote at the behest of County Attorney Christina Sloan, as County Administrator Ruth Dillon had, in error, sent out cancellation notices for the special meeting prior to its being held.

State legislators come to Moab to talk tax reform

Attendees of the Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force’s public comment period in Moab look on as a local woman addresses the task force on July 20. File photo by Carter Pape

July 20: A tour of the state brought members of the Utah Legislature’s Tax Reform and Equalization Task Force to Moab to discuss tax reform — which has since passed and received the governor’s signature. During the discussion, Moabites expressed concern about maintaining funding for public education in Utah and holding the city and county harmless with respect to its taxation of tourists and tourism.

A city spokesperson said after the tax reform proposal became public that it did, indeed, hold the city harmless. Local teachers said the proposal does not protect education funding while the state’s fiscal analyst said it did. A grassroots group is now circulating a statewide petition that, if it gains enough signatures, would put tax reform on the 2020 ballot.

City Council passes lodging ban, foregoing proposed amendment deadline

July 23: In a measure similar to that approved days prior by the county council, the Moab City Council voted unanimously to indefinitely remove lodging as a protected use within city limits, effectively extending the lodging moratorium passed at the beginning of the year until city staff, led by Planning Director Nora Shepard, wrote new standards for the council to pass.

The new standards, which are still in draft, would re-establish lodging as a protected use in the city’s Resort Commercial zone, which lies at the north end of town, south of the Colorado River, subject to numerous zoning amendments that would require new hotels to be more environmentally friendly.

Prior to its July vote, the council nixed language in the ordinance that had specified Oct. 31 as a soft deadline for drafting new lodging ordinances, opting instead to go forward with the shared but unwritten understanding that new regulations would likely be needed before the state legislature’s 2020 session begins on Jan. 27.

San Juan County divided over truck stop; rejects tourists

Photo courtesy of Love’s Travel Stop/Wikimedia Commons

Aug. 5: Residents of northern San Juan County attended a workshop for discussing commercial development along the highway in San Juan County’s portion of Spanish Valley, expressing divided opinions over the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration’s plan to sell land in Spanish Valley to Love’s Travel Stops.

While the room was divided over the specific plan — a neighbor of the parcel, Marlene Huckabay, said she would rather live by a dump — many agreed that the San Juan County portion of Spanish Valley was not open to the business of hosting or catering to tourists.

Six months of new management for the solid waste district

Aug. 6: Six months after the Solid Waste Special Service District #1 hired Evan Tyrrell to take up management of the district’s three facilities — the Klondike landfill, the recycling center, and the Sand Flats landfill — Tyrrell reported to the Grand County Council about what he had accomplished, including a major cleanup at the recycling center, leaving the much-visited facility cleared of debris and well organized for locals wishing to continue dropping off their recyclables.

Proposal for new form of government solidifies

Members of the Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee sign a plan for the county’s next form of government in late December. From left, Chair Steve Stocks, Bob Greenberg, Walt Dabney, Cricket Green, Jeramy Day and Marcy Till. Member Judy Carmichael participated in the meeting via telephone and is not pictured. Courtesy photo

Aug. 12: The committee for drafting a proposal for Grand County’s new form of government voted unanimously to send their plan, months in the making, to Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan for final legal review. Pending her approval, many on the committee hoped to see the matter put to voters on the 2019 ballot, three months hence.

Sloan ultimately found the plan to be in violation of the state constitution, saying the committee’s drawing of districts — one for voters near the urban center of Moab and one for the rural voters — might not hold up to a legal challenge. The committee would later remove districts from the plan, making all five council seats at-large positions within the county.

Long-awaited water study released, confirming water budget

Aug. 16: The U.S. Geological Survey published a report long in the making and widely anticipated by Moab locals that corroborates the decades-old estimate by the Utah Division of Water Rights that roughly 14,000 acre feet of groundwater are available for human consumption in the Moab valley. The budget is nearly quadruple the valley’s existing usage of groundwater.

The research overturned assumptions from a 1971 study about just how much water flows through the valley on an annual basis and how specifically it moves from the La Sal Mountains to the Colorado River.

Council approves Rally on the Rocks — with conditions

Aug. 20: The Grand County Council approved a special event permit for the 2020 Rally on the Rocks, requiring participants to adhere to a curfew for UTVs that limits their use to between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. The council also required that participants at the event read and sign a pledge to minimize UTV noise in town and to minimize impacts to the landscape.

Churches seek a break on sewer bills

Aug. 27: The Moab City Council discussed an ongoing effort by church leaders in Moab to adjust the calculations used to charge property owners in town for usage of public sewer services, with the ultimate effect of decreasing their sewer usage bills. The adjustments would require the city to pay for studies that could cost potentially $50,000.

Three contract West Nile virus

Late August: After the Moab Mosquito Abatement District spent months of spraying pesticide to fight an onslaught of mosquitoes, and one month after identifying West Nile Virus in a local specimen, three people in Moab contracted the less severe form of the virus, which yields flu-like symptoms such as headache and nausea.

‘Person of interest’ found in mail theft probe

Sept. 5: After reports from The Times-Independent of allegations of mail theft at the Moab Post Office, the United States Postal Service placed a city mail carrier on non-duty status after the employee became a person of interest for investigators looking into the allegations. No charges have yet been filed in the case, so investigators have not yet named the person.

Seven years prior, nearly to the day, investigators interviewed a woman who later pleaded guilty to mail theft charges. Charges against her were filed in January of the following year.

EMS awarded $5M for new facility

Sept. 5: Utah’s Community Impact Board, a statewide entity that grants funds for essential public services and facilities, made a preliminary offer to the Grand County EMS Special Service District of $5 million in funding for the construction of a new facility to house the EMS staff.

The district has yet to choose a site for the new facility, but according to then-Captain McKay Vowles, “the outlook for breaking ground in the next few months on a new facility is looking promising.”

School district revisits student athlete drug testing

Sept. 11: The Grand County School District revisited a conversation last had in 2017 about the potential of testing students for drug use as a condition of their participation in certain extracurricular activities, including sports. The board did not make an immediate decision on the matter and later delegated the issue to a subcommittee for further discussion and research.

Slickrock turns 50

Sept. 14: The Bureau of Land Management, Sand Flats Recreation Area and Grand County celebrated the 50th anniversary of the world-renowned Slickrock bike path. Dick Wilson and Doug Wood, who were integral to the bike path’s foundation, attended festivities at the trail’s entrance and at Star Hall later in the evening.

The Moab Area Travel Council commissioned a 36-minute documentary about the trail, produced by Finley Holiday Productions, available at discovermoab.com/videos.

HMK students flex knowledge of U.S. Constitution

Sept. 17: In observation of Constitution Day, the Moab Lions Club hosted a quiz bowl at Helen M. Knight Elementary to test fifth graders’ knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, posing to them questions about the country’s form of government, requirements to become an elected official, the Bill of Rights and more. Five students from Jolynn Torgerson’s fifth grade class won the competition.

OHVs ordered to be allowed in Utah national parks

Sept. 24: Palmer “Chip” Jenkins, the acting director of the National Park System’s Intermountain Region, which includes Utah, ordered park superintendents including Kate Cannon, who oversees Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, to allow off-highway vehicles including ATVs and UTVs into the parks.

After an uproarious reaction from Moabites and pushback from Cannon and other officials, Jenkins would later rescind the order, maintaining status quo rules that keep OHVs out of National Parks in Utah.

City awards bid for sewer project

Sept. 24: As part of a larger effort to modernize its sewer system, the City of Moab awarded Williams Construction of Salt Lake City a $1.7 million contact to construct new sewer lines in the north of end of town. The project is meant to prepare the city’s infrastructure for future growth and expansion of services.

One on the house

Sept. 24: The Moab City Council approves an ordinance that allows residents of age to consume alcohol at Lions Park and Old City Park. The changes were accompanied two weeks prior with a change to city policy that allows for alcohol to be sold and consumed at private events held on city property, such as the Moab Arts and Recreation Center.

Oct. 10

Reservation reservations

Supporters of a plan to implement a reservation system to ease congestion at Arches National Park are disappointed when NPS Superintendent Kate Cannon pulls the plug on the controversial proposal – at least for now.

Local opposition came primarily from tourism-dependent businesses, as Cannon announces her decision at a meeting that includes members of both local government councils and Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, along with others.

OHVs at Arches?

In a somewhat related matter, local NPS employees and many residents resist a surprising plan to allow off-highway vehicles onto Utah’s national parks and monuments. Rep. Curtis gets an earful from both sides while in town, and tells decision makers to reach a consensus he can support.

MMAD seeks tax increase

The year 2019 was one of the highest water years in recent memory, one that led to a horrible mosquito season after the sloughs and other riparian areas were flooded after years of drought – awakening dormant larvae.

The Moab Mosquito Abatement Special District proved wholly unable to cope with the swarms and fell in debt to Grand County, which made an emergency purchase of equipment and for an aerial spraying of larvicide. All of this leads to a push for a property tax increase – and to a MMAD board member to request the the beleaguered district be placed under county control.

Morse announces resignation; city makes key hires

Grand County Council Member Terry Morse announces he will resign in early December after he and his wife buy a home outside of District 1.

Meanwhile, the City of Moab hires Carly Castle as the new assistant city manager. She is an attorney with significant experience in public administration.

The city also hires Kaitlin Myers as its senior project manager. Her primary focus is on housing projects and policy, especially the city’s ambitious plan to build a public housing project on Walnut Lane.

Oct. 17

County seeks property tax hike

A budget shortfall of about $1.7 million leads the Grand County Council in a 5-2 vote to agree to notice their intent to raise taxes. A Truth in Taxation hearing is scheduled and the initial target is more than $2 million – including tax increases from the mosquito abatement district and library.

Hill leaving airport

Canyonlands Field Airport Director Judd Hill’s five years in Moab come to an end after he announces he has taken a position with Armstrong Consultants. He oversees tremendous expansion of the airport during his time in Grand County.

Native American milestones

Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated and the Full Circle Intertribal Center invites the community to join in. Songs are sung, dances are danced and drums are played.

A Night on the Tower

Max Turner and Matt Moore find themselves trapped 200 feet up Castleton Tower after a miscommunication. The Moab residents spend a dark, cold and storm night on the ledge before making it down safely the next day.

Oct. 24

HB 224 is a terribly written law

The Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee doesn’t mince words when members draft a scathing review that led to its creation: House Bill 224 is the 2018 law that forces Grand County to change its form of government, and the seven people appointed to do that very thing agree the law is flawed beyond repair.

Election 2019

The six candidates for three Moab City Council seats provide in their own words what they hope to accomplish for the business community if elected. The Times-Independent and the Moab Chamber of Commerce partner on the project.

Lionsback appeal heard in Moab

A three-judge panel from the Utah Court of Appeals hears oral arguments in the controversial Lionsback Resort case.

The plan to build a resort has been in the works for more than a decade.

E-bikes on public lands

They aren’t as controversial as off-highway vehicles, but like it or not e-bikes are not allowed on almost all public lands, including national parks and monuments, preserves, and wildlife refuges. But they are not allowed on all bike trails in Grand County.

Fluoridation nation

Moab’s water is not fluoridated, but if it were, the number of Moabites with cavities could be reduced by 27 percent, according to some experts. While resistance to fluoridated water continues in the U.S., oral health experts make it clear the benefits outweigh the negative aspects, during an oral health summit held at Moab Regional Hospital.

Oct. 31

Public Lands Forum

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R–Alaska, and Sen. Mike Lee, R–Utah,

A public lands roundtable at the Grand Center had something for everyone: U.S. senators and representatives, state officials, and protesters.

Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells plays a key role in organizing the gathering, which focuses on many issues, not more important than whether the state should take over management of Utah’s abundance of public lands.

Not so fast, OHVs

Public opposition to allowing off-highway vehicles to enter national parks in Utah plays a big role in reversing the plan. The Grand, City of Moab and Town of Castle Valley councils sign a joint resolution condemning the proposal.

Solar Golf

Rocky Mountain Power plans a solar farm near the Moab Golf Course. It is the power company’s first alternative energy project that will provide electricity to residential customers. The project could be awarded by next fall with preliminary designs scheduled for April.

Nov. 7

Moab mourns student’s death

High school students, teachers and staff attended a vigil in honor of Zella Ceniceros, a senior at Grand County High School, who died suddenly in November. Photo by Carter Pape

Sadness descends on Grand County following the sudden death of high school student Zella Ceniceros, a popular senior. Classmates and faculty mourn her passing during a vigil held Nov. 5, one week after she died.

Folk & Tartans

One of the final big weekends of the year includes the annual Moab Folk Festival and Scots on the Rocks. Judy Collins headlines one of the more popular folk festivals in recent memory and the Celtic celebration at Old Spanish Trail Arena draws more spectators and participants.

Incumbents re-elected

From left, Rani Derasary, Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, Kalen Jones. Each won re-election in November and will serve another four-year term on the Moab City Council.

Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, Rani Derasary, and Kalen Jones each win re-election in one of the closest municipal elections in memory. Less than three percentage points separate the first- and sixth-place vote getters. The incumbents are humble in victory; each of them thanked all candidates for running clean elections.

San Juan will keep its government

San Juan County voters were not in the mood to change their form of government so soon after the 2018 election landed two members of the Navajo Nation on the three-person commission.

Nov. 14

Proposed property tax hike reduced

The Grand County Council trims $300,000 from a proposed property tax hike, the first in a dozen years. The $1.8 million increase is reduced from the initial $2.1 million. The Budget Committee continues to look at cuts and Council Member Jaylyn Hawks pushes for elected officials and department heads to look at what cuts they would have to make if no tax increase is approved.

Honoring Veterans

A warm and sunny day greets dozens who attend a moving tribute at the county courthouse on Veterans Day. Speeches are made, the Valley Voices sing patriotic songs and an honor guard presents the colors. The ceremony ends with a 21-gun salute.

No rush on Walnut Lane

In the Walnut Lane subdivision, multiple trailers, including this one, have been condemned, awaiting replacement as the city works on a public housing project for the area. File photo by Carter Pape

The Moab City Council adopts a slower, more deliberate approach to its plan to develop an affordable housing project at the site of a Walnut Lane trailer court after Senior Project Manager Kaitlin Myers announces a revised plan. The most significant change is that the project will be bid out in phases, first for a project design and second for a general contractor.

Say no to asphalt plant

Plans to build an asphalt plant in Spanish Valley are met with fierce opposition at a San Juan County Commission meeting. The Grand County Council is asked to intervene in the matter on the same day. In the end, the San Juan Commission takes no action on the plant’s licensure, leaving many to question how long that will last given the money problems in the cash-starved county.

Pay cut

If voters approve the form of county government created by the Change in Form of Government Study Committee, the folks who are elected to that council will make $12,000 fewer dollars a year than does the current council – with the chairperson making $14,000 fewer dollars than does the current chair.

Nov. 21

Dramatic rescues

Search and Rescue members responded to the same spot near Professor Valley within 24 hours to rescue climbers injured in falls. A Classic Air Medical crew was dispatched both days to the area known as Sister Superior. File photo by Grand County Search and Rescue

Search and Rescue members respond to the same spot near Professor Valley within 24 hours to rescue climbers injured in falls. A Classic Air Medical crew is dispatched both days to the area known as Sister Superior.

Committee tosses districts

Rather than risk giving voters incomplete information, members of the Change in Form of Government Study Committee vote to do away with voting districts and instead have the five council seats all run at-large.

Lack of tax increase will ‘debilitate’ services

The news is not good – nor surprising – when Grand County elected officials and department heads agree the cuts they would have to make to balance their respective budgets without a tax increase would severely affect their ability to provide services.

The county is caught in a classic catch-22. They fell into the budget shortfall after raising wages virtually across-the-board in an effort to address a dramatic loss of employees who left for better pay.

The pay raises were provided without an identified revenue source.

Tax Reform

Changes to the Utah tax code could affect Moab families, particularly when it comes to an increase to the tax on groceries. The increase, from 1.75 percent to 4.85 percent, could be offset by grocery tax credits for those who are income eligible.

Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird, right, administers the oath of office to Grand County Council Member Gabriel Woytek. File photo by Doug McMurdo

Welcome, Mr. Woytek

Gabriel “Gabe” Woytek is named to replace Terry Morse on the Grand County Council. Woytek’s term will last a year.

Nov. 28

City grapples with proposed overnight lodging rules

One of the themes of 2019 in Grand County is overnight lodging. From banning them outright to controlling their development with a hand heavier than iron, local government is struggling.

The Moab City Council grapples to find the fine line between addressing quality of life issues for residents while not simultaneously killing the tourism goose that lays the golden egg.

‘Tarzan’ swings into Moab

A big cast of student actors and actresses complemented Jane and Tarzan in GCHS’s annual fall musical held last week. File photo by Anthony Militano

“Tarzan: The Musical” is a hit at Grand County High, where the Drama Department pulls out all the stops in production, thanks to a circus camp hosted in the summer that taught students how to safely perform circus tricks.

Ottinger still rocking at 92

The legendary Lin Ottinger, 92, shares the stories of his life at the final Tuesdays at the Museum event of 2019. Ottinger tells jokes, reads his poetry, and shares his love of Moab, where he moved in the 1950s.

Good year for Housing Authority

Executive Director Ben Riley tells the Grand County Council that 2019 was a good year for housing. Construction begins on the MAPS Senior Living housing project on Park Lane near Moab Regional Hospital, the Wingate Village housing project begins, and Cinema Court and Virginia Apartments complexes are at capacity.