Lionsback Resort: City of Moab seeks help from Utah Supreme Court

The City of Moab has appealed a recent decision in its Lionsback Resort case to the Utah Supreme Court. File photo by Doug McMurdo

The City of Moab has appealed to the Utah Supreme Court a lower court’s finding that it should have held a public hearing before allowing the developers of Lionsback Resort near Sand Flats Recreation Area to materially change a previously approved development agreement.

The Petition for Writ of Certiorari essentially requests the Utah Court of Appeals to send the Utah Supreme Court all documents it used in ruling in favor of a number of private citizens and the nonprofit Living Rivers. The high court could take up the case or deny the city’s writ, which could compel the city to hold a public hearing.

There were original reports the City of Moab, the developers, LB Moab Land Company, LLC; and the Utah Schools and Institution Trust Lands Administration, which sold the land to LB Moab Land Company would develop the property as it was originally approved following the Court of Appeals ruling.

City of Moab contract attorney Chris McAnany and lawyers representing SITLA and the developers want Supreme Court justices to overturn the appellate court’s ruling in a case that began a dozen years ago when the city, the developer and SITLA jointly agreed to annex the 175 acres of SITLA property into the city, which occurred in December of 2008, according to court documents.

Seven months later the trio executed development and phasing agreements. Public meetings were held and the agreements were approved before citizens filed an appeal with the Moab Board of Adjustments, which sided with the city, as did former Seventh Judicial District Judge Lyle Anderson when citizens appealed the Board of Adjustments ruling. The decision was again affirmed for the first time by the Utah Court of Appeals.

The Great Recession hit before ground was broken and the project stalled for eight years, until 2016 when the developer returned to the city with a new concept that called for a150-room hotel and deleted nearly three dozen “casita” units.

The City Council in place in 2016 determined the changes were major rather than minor, meaning new public hearings would have to be held, according to the city’s land use regulations. The original hotel was to have 50 rooms.

While the developer and SITLA disputed the changes were major, SITLA threatened to pull the project from the city and develop Lionsback on its own with no city involvement — an act State law currently allows.

The city countered with a warning of its own and accused SITLA and the developer of trying to circumvent city rules.

The two sides over the next weeks and months negotiated a document called a Zoning Status Agreement, which in part allowed the city to review the project under city ordinances.

Writs of certiorari are filed when the aggrieved party believes matters of “first impression” have been raised, meaning the court has to determine whether new legal ground has been plowed.

In this case, attorneys for the city, SITLA and the developer argue the city’s settlement agreement in 2016 amounted to improper contract zoning, as the appellate court determined and the effect that ruling could have on other Utah cities and towns.

The attorneys also want the Supreme Court to clearly define what constitutes improper contract zoning to protect a city or town’s discretion when faced with a legitimate dispute. The third request of the court is also characterized as a matter of first impression in alleging the appellate court erred when it determined the city needed to hold a public hearing because SITLA is exempt from any local regulations — even after the land in question was annexed into the city. Finally, they argue local governments have the right to modify permitting requirements pursuant to the Utah Interlocal Cooperation Act.

The plaintiffs have 30 days from Tuesday, Feb. 25, to file an opposition to the writ of certiorari and then the city would have two weeks to file its reply. If the Utah Supreme Court denies the writ, the city will have to hold public hearings on the amendments or, in the alternative, Lionsback can proceed developing the site based on the original approval.

If justices want to review the case and grants certiorari it will set what’s known as a briefing schedule. Eventually, the high court will hear oral arguments before making a decision, a process that could take several months to complete.